Connection Center Manager Danielle Dikos displays a video viewing room where customers can relive their test car driving experience. (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)
The newest space at Patsy Lou Chevrolet Buick GMC is a different kind of showroom: Low-key greeters welcome visitors, but they don’t push. Big-screen TVs air videos and product information. There are cars to look at, sit in and drive — and customers can even record video of test drives with a GoPro dashboard cam.
The focus at Connection Center Building 4 in Flint Township is to bring customers into the dealership to learn about the latest vehicle technology — not necessarily to pressure them to buy a car. Younger buyers are the primary target because they prefer to research on the Web before visiting a showroom.
It’s a change General Motors Co. is embracing.
CEO Dan Akerson emphasized this shift Wednesday in a quarterly earnings conference call with analysts. The automaker, he said, wants its customers to be able to buy cars over the Internet.
“It doesn’t mean we are going to try and bypass our dealers, but why not in this tech-savvy culture we have, this economy we have, (allow) the millennial to come in and ... sign and go,’ ” Akerson told analysts, referring to those generally younger than 30.
In many cases, buyers know what model and options they want, if it’s available on the lot in the color they want and have a price on the car before entering a dealership.
“Ten years ago, car shoppers made an average of 4.5 visits to a dealership before they bought a car,” National Automobile Dealers Association Chairman David Westcott told the Automotive Press Association in Detroit this month. “Today, thanks partly to the use of the Internet, they make 1.3 visits before they buy a car.”
Eighteen- to 30-year-olds buy things differently than previous generations, says Larry White, co-owner and executive vice president of Patsy Lou Chevrolet Buick GMC. They spend hours conducting research before making a purchase. “We want to be able to cater to millennials ... and how they want to buy,” he said.
White came up with the Connection Center idea after watching and talking to people at the Apple Store at Twelve Oaks mall playing with the latest iPhones. The dealer spent $125,000 to transform what had been vacant space they called Building 4, which is staffed by connection center specialists who aren’t salespeople but instead are knowledgeable on vehicle technology.
Jordan Myers, 23, a Kettering University engineering senior from Grand Rapids, visited the Connection Center about four weeks ago and took a few cars on test drives. Myers had done research online and is interested in buying a Chevrolet Cruze, perhaps in the next month or so, after he lands the job for which he’s interviewing.
“It was a great experience,” Myers said. “I wasn’t bothered or hassled about anything.”
'They can ... kick tires'
White hopes that when people like Myers are ready to buy a car, they’ll come back to his dealership. The center opened about a month ago and has led to a handful of sales, he said.
“The more that people know this is an environment where they can come kick tires, I think our umbrella will get bigger,” he said. “I think we’re not going to just see millennials, (but) other age groups who just don’t like the conventional car-buying process and want a new way.”
NADA’s Westcott said dealers are embracing Internet sales. People who want to buy a car online today can do it.
GM launched a pilot program about a year ago, giving a small number of dealers access to Shop-Click-Drive, a Web tool that GM created. It allows consumers to search for vehicles, get pricing, choose financing and get a trade-in estimate — all by computer or smartphone.
“There’s a lot of research out there that shows an increasing number of people want to go online to do more of the shopping and buying process around new vehicles,” GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney said, adding the company hopes Shop-Click-Drive will help dealers attract millennial customers.
The automaker said it plans to roll out the tool nationally by the end of the year to all 4,300 dealers. Participation is optional; about 100 dealers in eight states currently use the tool. GM attributes about 900 sales to Shop-Click-Drive at the end of September, but just five were completed entirely online, Carney said.
Internet browsing first
Westcott said most car shoppers prefer to first browse the Internet, then come to a dealership for a test drive and to finalize the deal.
That’s what Sinjan Dhar, 30, of Rochester Hills did. Dhar knew he wanted a Buick and eventually narrowed his choice to a sporty 2014 Buick Regal. He spent three to four hours reading reviews and researching the Regal online. He built his own 2-liter turbo model on Buick.com and requested a quote. A few days later, Shelton Buick GMC in Rochester Hills contacted him.
“I knew exactly what I wanted, the color, the trim, the features,” Dhar said, adding he headed to the dealership for a test drive. Dhar picked up his new white-diamond Regal last week.
Russ Shelton, whose dealership has been in business 55 years, recently hired a new general sales manager to help increase the dealership’s Internet sales. Before the change, Shelton said responses to prospective Internet customers were automated and not timely. Today, more than 10 percent of the dealership’s sales are generated through the Internet.
“It is the wave of the future. It’s not going to change,” Shelton said. “If you don’t embrace it, you’re missing a lot of opportunities.”
But not all buyers are like Dhar. With so many car shopping and research websites and an overall improving inventory of vehicles, consumers often broaden their searches before making a choice. While nearly two-thirds of car buyers start out with a brand in mind, just one in five actually buy that brand, according to a 2012 Compete/Polk/TNS study.
Car-shopping website AutoTrader.com also found that many buyers cast a wide net in searches before settling on a vehicle. The website, in a recent study, found that 65 percent of about 300 people who bought new Honda CR-Vs earlier this year initially searched for many vehicles.
Rick Wainschel, vice president of automotive insights for AutoTrader.com, said those buyers looked at luxury and non-luxury, new and used vehicles and in different segments. Just days before shoppers actually bought a CR-V, many were still searching other vehicles, he said.