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The  iluli by Mike Lamb logo. Click to return to the homepage
The iluli by Mike Lamb logo. Click to return to the homepage

The End of Forecourt Sales?

“Do you know what I love most about buying a car? The sales process.” Said no one, ever.

Car buying can be as frustrating as it is exciting. After the initial joy of finding your new wheels comes hours of waiting around: the haggling, the paperwork, the salesperson “running it past The Boss”, said Boss gracing you with their presence to tell you what a great bargain you’re getting. It’s all just a bit… dated. But things are changing...

A cartoon image of a poster affixed to a brick wall. The poster features a grayscale photograph of a car emblazoned with the slogan 'WORLD OF TOMORROW'.

For younger generations convenience is king, and given the choice between a few clicks on a website or three plus hours in a car showroom we all know which will come out on top. The less human interaction the better, and the automotive industry has cottoned on.

Here in the UK, we often see technology launch in the US first and make its way across the Atlantic in its own sweet time. Auto is no different — but it’s worth the wait. The auto industry was one of the first to introduce customer service “Live Chat” options on their websites, and to embrace personalisation technology and 360° video tours. It’s easy to forget a time when these elements weren’t just a given. You only need look to Tesla to see how much auto technology has advanced in recent years. It’s certainly not an industry that has rested on its laurels when it comes to innovation.

Why then, is the in-dealership experience found wanting? Is it simply the sales patter that’s off-putting or is there more to it?

Back in 2012, Fiat launched Fiat Click — “the world’s first integrated car retailing solution from a major manufacturer”. It was revolutionary for its time, allowing customers to browse and select from stock, book a test drive, design their car and buy it without leaving the house. It was exclusively available for certain postcodes within the Birmingham area, and was launched in tandem with an “Apple-esque” boutique store in the Touchwood Shopping Centre, Solihull. Over the course of 12 months it achieved:

  • A top 3 position in Fiat’s own sales satisfaction survey (out of 150 franchised Fiat dealers)

  • 100% of the buyers recommending Fiat Click as a way to buy a new car

  • Over 30,000 store visitors and more than 700 test drives

Surprising then, that Fiat Click is no more. Instead, Fiat offer the opportunity to browse available stock, configure a new car and book test drives via their website, as most other major retailers do.

But the COVID-19 pandemic looks set to change the playing field once more. During lockdown, showrooms have been a no-go and it’ll surely be a while before consumers feel fully comfortable in that environment again. It’s a time when retailers need to think outside of the box, more than ever before.

Land Rover have fully digitised the purchase journey, offering customer two options: to “Build and Order Online” or “Order from Stock”. With an average configuration time of 30 minutes for the former, the customer then receives a tailored quote complete with payment options. Simply choose a time for contactless collection of the vehicle and you’re done. How easy it that?

And they’re not the only ones.

A cartoon image of a bustling futuristic street scene. Two blue autonomous cars with pink wheels navigate marked lanes, their passengers visible through large, rounded windows. On the pavement, a figure on their phone stands beside a poster proclaiming "FUTURE IS HERE".

Dacia are also offering online alternatives. Simply select and configure your car, and then choose whether to collect it or have it delivered directly to your door.

Whilst also offering home delivery, Vauxhall have taken things a step further with their “Virtual Showroom”. This initiative offers customers a live one-to-one video call with a product assistant. They promise a “personalised tour of the all-new Corsa, including their first ever 100% electric vehicle”. What’s more, whilst you can see the Vauxhall assistant, they can’t see you. Good to know if you’re browsing in your PJs on a Sunday morning! The especially clever thing here is that there’s no need to book a time slot. Entering your details and enabling your microphone is enough to access the showroom — no waiting, no fuss.

There is one brand, however, who is looking to change the game altogether: Cazoo.

Cazoo is a platform that launched in December 2019, allowing you to buy used cars online. You’d be forgiven for thinking “that’s just like Autotrader” but there’s one big difference. Cazoo is ENTIRELY online. No need to meet anyone, check the car in person or haggle down the price with Neil from Northampton. Cazoo own all the cars they sell, meaning the car on sale is the car you’ll get. In as little as 72 hours, that sporty red number could be pulling up on your driveway — and all with a seven-day money-back guarantee.

Interestingly, Tesla were one of the first to offer a seven-day “no questions asked” return policy — something that was quietly axed in October 2020. The Verge reported:

“Tesla has reportedly canceled an audacious return policy in which new buyers of its electric vehicles could return them for a full refund within seven days. The news, reported on Friday by Electrek, marks an end to one of CEO Elon Musk’s flashier marketing strategies.

“Musk has used the seven-day return policy as a way to boast about Tesla’s high customer satisfaction rates, with the company so confident new buyers would be happy with their purchase that they wouldn’t take Tesla up on its bold offer, which is practically unheard of in the standard automobile industry. The policy also bolstered the idea that Tesla cars are like consumer electronics products — you could order and customize them online and have them delivered to your door, like an Amazon package, and then return it if you were unsatisfied.”

Back then, Tesla founder Elon Musk also boasted of two-minute ordering times. Its sounds impressive, but I expect most of us would prefer to take our time before parting with tens of thousands of dollars!

Cazoo was masterminded by British entrepreneur Alex Chesterman — founder of LoveFilm and Zoopla — and is one of the UK’s best-funded new businesses in history, having secured over £180m in funding. In Cazoo’s first year, it generated more than £150m in revenue with 10,000 cars delivered between December 2019 and November 2020. And if you’re a fan of football, you’ll be seeing the name a great deal more following their shirt sponsorship deals with Premier League clubs Everton and Aston Villa.

But whilst all this technology is great for the initial purchase, what happens afterwards? Ultimately, we’ll still have to drop off the car for its annual service and MOT. Oh wait, no we don’t… Many retailers are now routinely offering the option to collect your car and drop it off too.

You could argue that such a hands-off approach might be damaging in the longer term. After all, it’s hard to build up a trusting relationship with your local mechanic if you’ve never actually met them! But the industry has this covered too. CitNOW offer apps for workshops to create personalised videos, allowing service technicians to share any issues with clients directly.  If nothing else, this “show, don’t tell” approach will hopefully put an end to the dreaded phone call reeling off a list of replacement parts you didn’t even know existed!


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