AutoNation rolls out digital store
In a first for the auto industry, Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based giant AutoNation is rolling out a “digital storefront” that lets consumers start buying cars and trucks online.
The system lets customers on AutoNation’s website choose a specific new or used vehicle at a fixed price and reserve it before heading to the store to test drive the vehicle and deciding whether to buy.
Lots of paperwork is completed online first, so instead of spending at least two hours, buyers now can close a deal in a half hour or less with no trade-in or financing, said AutoNation Chief Executive Mike Jackson.
“We’re very confident we’re saving the customers time, hassle and money,” said Jackson at a preview this week of the new system dubbed “Smart Choice Express” set to debut next month.
“We think it’s going to be a competitive advantage,” he said.
Analysts say no other auto retailer comes close to what AutoNation is offering and won’t any time soon.
That’s because the country’s largest auto retailer has made massive investments in information technology to track its sales and other data from its network of more than 250 stores. That data enables the company to set a no-haggle price on each vehicle online — a price it adjusts day to day based on manufacturer incentives, taxes and other factors in various cities and states.
No other dealer group has the scale to gather and manage that information.
“This is a major improvement over existing alternatives” that don’t let customers reserve an exact vehicle at an exact price or start buying online, said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst at Cars.com after the preview.
He sees the system best suited for consumers who know what brand and model they want — a group that now accounts for about 40 percent of the market.
“Some of these measures will start changing perceptions (of auto dealers) with the millennial crowd and the younger generation,” added auto analyst Cliff Banks of The Banks Report after the preview.
AutoNation invested more than $100 million over the last year to develop “Smart Choice Express,” which it will launch in South Florida late this year and at most stores nationwide next year, Jackson said.
That outlay comes on top of $200 million it spent over recent years to develop its shared-services center in Texas, where the sales and market data is collected and analyzed.
It also builds on AutoNation’s switch last year to a single brand for nearly all its stores coast-to-coast, replacing a hodge-podge of names from former family dealers. That brand recognition helps AutoNation attract customers to its website, which also is adapted to mobile devices, said Jackson.
AutoNation invested in the system after seeing what Jackson calls a “disconnect” between the car-buying experience online and in stores that led to a “high degree of frustration” among consumers. After researching online, shoppers routinely had to start the car-buying process all over in the dealership.
The new system lets you start buying. Later versions aim to offer exact quotes on financing and for trade-ins too, said Jackson.
To reserve cars through the new system, buyers make a refundable deposit through their credit card or PayPal account. The cars are held for 48 hours in most cases. If a customer opts not to buy, the deposit is returned. But the customer’s online data need not be re-entered to buy a new vehicle.