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Auto Dealerships Adapt to Reverse Showrooming

Todd Benschneider – University of South Florida
October 7, 2013
Reverse Showrooming Trends Benefit Automobile Dealerships
A current trend in consumer spending known as “showrooming” has deterred many retailers from investing in additional brick and mortar stores. “Showrooming” consumers first visit storefront locations to try on sizes or look at samples; however, those shoppers purchase the goods later through the website or from a lower priced competitor. Long term trends of declining incomes from storefront locations have influenced large chains to reevaluate the return on investment that storefronts will generate in the 21st century. The widespread arrival of mobile technology magnified storefront spending gaps, as many tech savvy consumers now use price comparison apps to reduce the time and fuel spent in pursuit of the lowest prices.

In contrast to showrooming, a new retail trend is emerging as a byproduct of social media; a new breed of reverse showroom shoppers are arriving in stores ready to purchase. In reverse showrooming, a potential customer is exposed first to the new product online by a mention or recommendation from a friend’s social media post, often the posts include price and store location. The recommendation leads the reader to believe that their friend had done the price research for them which prompts the shopper to visit the storefront and make a similar purchase. Research found that while 41% of social media users browse online; they however made the purchases at a store. Further contributing to the growing trend, are recent changes in sales tax laws which eliminate tax savings previously available through online purchases.

Retail automobile sales are an industry uniquely suited to gain from these reverse showrooming trends. Car dealerships have been protected from showrooming behavior; because licensing, financing and insurance regulations require customers to verify proof of identity, sign legal documents and finalize title transfer at brick and mortar franchises. As a result, every internet automobile shopper essentially becomes a reverse showroom buyer.

The internet car shopping experience allows customers to gather comparative information such as fuel economy, safety and reliability ratings without facing the pressure many shoppers can perceive while visiting a dealership showroom to collect brochures and pricing. Buyer’s aversion to interpersonal confrontation may have previously limited automobile sales. In response to customer aversion to dealer showrooms, auto manufacturer websites have responded with new website tools allowing shoppers to build and price each model to exact specifications and locate a match on a dealer’s lot.

Initially many automobile dealerships cursed the arrival of the internet for providing confidential cost information to buyers, which resulted in reduced profit margins. The internet further leveled the playing field by providing buyers a new negotiation tool, email, which allowed consumers to email requests for written proposals in order to create bidding wars among many dealerships. Recently however, dealerships have adapted to this new age of self-service sales, by reducing sales staff, trimming advertising budgets and reducing inventory carrying costs.

Today many dealerships carry lower ratios of stocked inventory per unit sold then in the pre-internet era. This is now possible by capitalizing on website tools that allow customers to effectively imagine what their dream car will look like in combinations of interior and exterior colors, without the need to stock every color combination. The shopping process is further streamlined once the preferred vehicle color and equipment is selected, buyers can simply drive a similarly equipped vehicle at the dealership to test the ride and handling. Once customer selection is confirmed the dealer can transport the exact unit from storage lots within days. To further facilitate the new process, manufacturers have provided assistance to diminished profit margins with generous contributions to dealer compensation through sales quota bonuses.

Many dealerships have survived the arrival of the Web 2.0, those franchises have done so by developing finance and insurance departments that offer cost-effective services that are less effectively shopped through the internet than the car itself. Auto loans, leasing terms, insurance and service contracts have costs dependent on variables such as credit scoring and their vehicle specifics; the combination of these factors become difficult to build accurate proposals in email correspondence, and give dealerships the ability to finalize pricing after the buyer has an escalated level of commitment, which results in greater opportunity to close the deal with higher profit margins. Additionally, increased buyer commitment allows sales managers to focus on the handful of customers present to purchase rather than pinpointing serious buyers from the dozens of casual shoppers browsing from the pre-internet era.

I have watched 15 years of adaptation of the automobile sales process, and see that it would have been difficult to predict shoppers arriving with mobile devices and apps capable of locating specific cars, calculating pricing, estimating trade values and providing interest rates, based on what other buyers obtained on similar vehicles. These customer to customer comparisons are in essence the foundations for what later evolved into social media.

Today, retailers can find ways to make reverse showrooming work to their advantage by utilizing funds available from reduced advertising costs, carrying costs, and labor costs. Armed with these liberated resources retailers can reinvent themselves and create web commerce portals that serve company objectives rather than becoming the idle servants of web demand. We need to prepare a vision to enhance the Web 2.0 tools to our advantage and prepare for a future of unimagined supply chain models made possible through instant mobile spending and speedy shipping options. Survival has always required adaptation, and unlike print media, the automobile industry remains many generations away from the social extinction.