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Retooling Retail – The Rise of a Virtual Car Dealership Experience

It was already beginning to happen. Shoppers, though they didn’t realize there was a name for it at the time, have been socially distancing themselves from retail establishments for years. When is the last time you were in an absolutely packed shopping mall? Or one that didn’t have multiple empty storefronts?

As the global culture has become more integrated with technology, it has become less necessary for shoppers to visit brick and mortar establishments to find the products they’re looking for. One exception has been the car buying process, where most people genuinely love browsing the car lot in person and taking in the sights, sounds, and yes, the new car smell. Even this behavior, though, has begun to shift as technology has continued to evolve and present shoppers with the future of car buying, a virtual way to experience their vehicle.

Whether they were browsing Carvana or “test driving” the new Mazda 3 via their Oculus Rift headset, consumers have been getting more comfortable with different ways of evaluating their vehicle purchases beyond the standard lot browsing and test driving. Those who prefer a firm handshake and live conversation with a local sales rep that they can look in the eye, are now outnumbered by those who want to avoid the risks and some frustrations associated with the personal nature of the car buying experience.

And now, during uncertain times, dealership owners and operators need to think strategically about how to “retool” the retail car buying experience. What near-term investments will pay off in the long-term? What new skills and technology will help sales staff in the current social distancing climate? And what will carry over into the new normal with a growing trend towards digitalization?

So how will dealerships take their customers through such a personal and momentous financial decision without the handshake, the eye contact, or the reassuring smile? Many dealerships are implementing new technologies that allow sales teams to chat with customers digitally in real time. Customers can also take a 4K, real-time test ride (and with autonomous driving features increasingly available, we may all do more riding than driving soon, anyway).

Dealerships are searching for ways to provide more value and extend customer engagement digitally, including providing up-front pricing, negotiating friendly purchasing options, and providing links to product insights or reviews. Some sales professionals are even utilizing phone-based video apps to communicate with their customers. The limits to the virtual car dealership experience is hindered only by your (and your dealership’s) technological imagination.

That being said, any dealership owner or operator can tell you that customer-interfacing technologies such as live chat agents, virtual test drives, or robust CRM technology are more easily conceived than executed.

One way automotive organizations can expedite the learning curve of implementing and using these technologies is to build out their digital, technical fluency first, and to do it now. It’s time to take the next steps in the future of car buying and start implementing the processes that will turn your dealership into a modern, 3D billboard for your digital car sales operation.

As always, GP Strategies is here to help you adjust to this fluid situation and “retool” your strategy  to respond effectively to market changes.

About the Authors


Cathy Palochko

Cathy Palochko leads GP Strategies’ automotive practice with the Asian and European brands. With more than 30 years’ experience in training and development, 25 years of which are in automotive with OEMs and in retail, she has developed extensive knowledge of dealership operations and processes and has a first-hand understanding of the retail experience. Since 2007, she has supported OEM clients in their efforts to improve the customer experience and dealership profitability and is now focused on future retailing concepts and digitalization of the dealership. A passionate advocate for the opportunities that automotive retail careers offer the workforce, Cathy has a strong personal commitment to improving the perception of the industry and the reputation of its leaders and front-line personnel.

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