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Automotive Digital Retailing: Modern Dealership Solutions

By Zach Williams | Apr 4, 2024

Last updated on May 10, 2024


With nearly every vehicle buyer completing at least part of their purchasing journey online, automotive digital retailing is necessary for dealerships looking to maximize opportunities in sales, service, F&I and beyond. Succeeding in this space means going way beyond simply having a website. And getting it right can put you miles ahead of the competition. By delivering a car buying journey focused on efficient, buyer-centric processes, you can create seamless experiences and elevate customer satisfaction. Read on to find out how to make it a reality for your dealership.

What is automotive digital retailing?

Dealerships can recreate the showroom experience in an online platform and transform the sales process to give customers more convenience, flexibility and confidence when making a vehicle purchase.

By leveraging a full suite of tools and resources, you can support and enhance your onsite dealership sales processes with online experiences at the customer’s choice and leisure. 

Digital solutions enhance the car-buying experience with end-to-end sales tools so customers can access information and transact where and when they prefer. Most customers still want to come into the store as part of their buying process, but having online test drive videos, financing information, virtual F&I processes and more can work hand-in-hand with your in-store sales process to give modern buyers what they expect from dealerships. 

Download the Free Guide: How Top Dealerships Are Evolving Their F&I Process →

The Evolution of Consumer Expectations for Automotive Retail 

The proof is in the data – digital retailing creates an experience customers prefer over an in-store purchase, and the audience for online vehicle sales is growing every day. In a survey of car buyers' experiences from 2020-2022, people reported: 


Survey Source 

As buyers move to a more omnichannel approach, the size of the market continues to expand. Cox Automotive’s 2023 Car Buyer Journey Study revealed that:

  • 92% of consumers said their next vehicle purchase would involve the internet
  • 71% said they would likely do a mix of online and in-person shopping
  • 21% intend to complete their next vehicle purchase completely online
Those are huge audiences that need to be part of your sales strategy. By adapting and capitalizing on current and future buying behaviors, dealers can reach more customers and make more sales than ever before.

Why Dealerships Should Implement Automotive Digital Retailing  

As the world transitions to an increasingly online buying landscape, the time to prepare for the evolving consumer is now, not when sales start to dip. To drive new business to your dealership, you should always be looking ahead for ways to stay in front of trends and respond to upcoming challenges and opportunities, and digital transformation is one trend that is only growing. 

Creative-request-iconAn important question to ask is whether or not you’re getting a large enough share of the market. Maybe your sales figures are steady, but if you’re only attracting 2 or 3 out of every 10 possible buyers, are you satisfied with those results?

In today’s retail environment, your potential car buyer could be located anywhere in the world with an internet browser. Someone could be relocating to your area and be seeking a new vehicle as part of their move. Or you may have a local buyer who is traveling and using their free time on a long flight to finalize a vehicle purchase they’ve been thinking about for a while. The point here is that sales can come to you from anywhere, if you’re ready to receive them. 

Giving customers a robust shopping experience from their computers and devices means they should be able to replicate the in-store process online, including the ability to compare vehicle models and features, chat with a sales representative, and have easy access to information they need to make decisions on the products and services they want to purchase, secure financing, sign for their purchase and decide when to pick it up or have it delivered. 

It might sound lofty to accomplish, but the demand for seamless buying is everywhere. Retailers across industries offer online buying and in-store pickup options, and dealers can too. From vehicle sales to F&I and beyond, digital retailing is a winning combination for customers seeking flexibility and customization, and for dealers with sales targets and profitability goals who can now support interested buyers 24-7-365. 

The Need for Automotive Dealerships to Adapt Sales to Modern Buyers

The auto industry has always prided itself on the value of face-to-face relationships and bringing a human touch to large, important purchases. Unfortunately, that has resulted in often being slow to adapt to change compared to other retail categories, usually fueled by an “if it isn’t broken, why fix it?” mentality. What many have failed to realize is that, done well, digital purchase pathways improve person-to-person interactions when eager buyers reach out for assistance. And those dealers ahead of the technology curve are standing out in a big way to modern consumers.

Let’s look at some real-life examples of the need for innovation in the retail industry.

When was the last time you watched a movie at home on TV? Did you go to a store and pick out a DVD to bring home? Can you even remember the last time you used your DVD player, assuming you still have one?

There was a time when Blockbuster had the market cornered on home video entertainment. Mom-and-pop video stores couldn’t compete. Why? Because Blockbuster innovated having more available inventory, especially for popular and new-release films.

But then along came Netflix, who started out by saying “Why make the frustrating trip to the store only to find your favorite choice isn’t available? Why not let us mail it to you instead?” They also cut out late fees and the need to return the DVD to the store.

Even Netflix had to innovate again, moving to digital streaming to stay on top of the market.

While we’re still several years away from all vehicle sales happening 100% online, the indicators are there. If nothing else, imagine the extra bang you get from your advertising buck when a consumer at home sees your TV ad, can point their phone at a QR code on the screen and select trim details, shop through a selection of virtual F&I products, make their down payment online, get pre-approved for financing and then show up the next day to sign and drive. Pretty cool, right? 
And moving quickly has its benefits: 87% of Millenial and GenZ customers aren’t just interested in making purchases online. They want to be able to do it from their phones. Imagine the power of an adaptive, mobile-friendly website that can offer a robust sales experience. More vehicles sold, faster? Yes please.

The Key Components of Effective Automotive Digital Retailing

A website is just the first step (and a very important one) in establishing the foundation of your online retailing platform. But it shouldn’t stop there. Your strategy should also include:  

  • Online vehicle displays, including photos, videos, virtual test drives and walkarounds
  • In-stock and incoming inventory with filters for: price, model year, color, pre-owned, certified pre-owned and more 
  • Promotional videos showcasing new arrivals
  • Transparent prices and calculators for trade-ins and monthly payments
  • Financing offers and special deals on vehicles
  • Information and options on F&I products and a way to buy them online, including:
    •  Vehicle service contracts
    •  GAP/total loss protection
    •  Prepaid maintenance
    •  Vehicle protection products
    •  Road hazard and tire protection
    •  Appearance protection and more 
  • E-contracts
  • Online insurance and credit verification
  • Customer satisfaction surveys  
  • Email marketing and digital communications 

Download the Free Guide: How Top Dealerships Are Evolving Their F&I Process →

The Benefits of Automotive Digital Retailing for Customers and Dealerships

The exciting thing about this advancement in technology is that you can add features and evolve as you go while your traditional sales systems evolve alongside them. As dealership teams get more comfortable with the digital aspects of automotive retailing, the experience becomes seamless to all involved.  
For customers this means more convenience, improved transparency, greater trust and more willingness to try making a large purchase in a new way. As the inventory challenges of the last few years resolve, customers who felt more comfortable buying online or who pre-ordered a vehicle when none were on dealership lots will want to replicate that experience. Ensure they can see all their options online as part of their research and decision making. 

And even the in-person buyer who has done research online should have access to all the information they would get at a dealership, including a virtual F&I catalog to see the actual cost and value a vehicle service contract provides. Having this information available can motivate buyers to purchase F&I in a low-pressure environment, helping them feel confident in their purchase and adding to your bottom line. 

Helping customers feel in control of their purchase experiences directly benefits dealerships. When buyers trust they are receiving fair pricing and see value in add-on products, it makes them more likely to buy and more satisfied with their purchase. 

Creating that environment strengthens the client-dealership relationship, helping ensure they’ll come back to you for their next vehicle purchase, extending the customer lifecycle. 

Whether in sales, service or F&I, satisfied buyers also spread the word to other potential customers. Make it easy for them to talk about how easy and seamless it was to work with your dealership, and your customer satisfaction levels and referral business will rise. The enhanced brand perception that comes along with it can help you attract new customers who prefer doing business with forward-thinking and technologically advanced companies.

Starting, Sustaining and Succeeding with Automotive Digital Retailing 

Remember, your digital retail tools don’t need to - nor should they - replace your traditional sales methods. But they should mirror each other. Getting it right takes time, strategy, diligence and a fair amount of change management, so it’s important to implement new technologies at a reasonable pace and make sure you have a solid process for onboarding new solutions and they’re working as they should for you and for your customers.

This is where the help of a trusted partner can be invaluable for your business. Having someone manage change, train your teams and make the process as smooth as possible will allow you to  focus on running your business with minimal interruption.

Here’s an example of how this can work in practice. As you review the steps, think about if there’s someone at your dealership who can manage this in addition to their current workload, or if additional support would simplify how you select, implement and ensure the successful use of a digital retailing process: 

Example: Implementing Digital Processes for F&I Sales  


STEP 1: Evaluate your current state

  • Determine if you have technology and processes in place to enable and integrate with a Virtual F&I solution
  • Define goals and KPIs you want to achieve, so you can ensure your digital processes can help you get there
  • Decide if a new is technology required, or if a change to existing processes can be implemented 

STEP 2: Research your options

  • If a new process or technology is required, evaluate the marketplace to see what options meet your needs and can help you achieve your goals for growth and profitability
  • Bring in stakeholders whose teams are impacted by this change and determine the best option for your operations
  • Determine what steps you will need to take to ensure every virtual transaction you complete will comply with all legal and regulatory guidelines

STEP 3: Change management and training

  • Onboard new tools and/or processes to your existing operations
  • Educate and train all relevant dealer personnel on the new offering, its features, benefits and goals for success
  • Incorporate your new Virtual F&I sales process into all new hire training 

STEP 4: Promote your new offerings to your customers

  • Create marketing resources for your website, emails, social media and onsite materials to raise awareness among consumers of this new aspect of the buying process

STEP 5: Review and refine processes

  • Ensure you continue to optimize your processes by collecting feedback from customers and team members to track progress, utilization and success

You know first-hand; this situation only illustrates and reinforces how complicated it can be to roll out new processes, sales tools and technologies within a dealership. Having a partner who is invested in your success and can help manage this on your behalf ensures that you can continue to run your business while they help you optimize processes for continued growth.

Creating a shopping experience that delivers customer-focused modern sales tools and integrates with your technology and processes is no small feat. There will be obstacles and challenges along the way, so getting alignment from leaders and stakeholders can help keep you focused on the end goal as you navigate your next steps into end-to-end online vehicle sales.

The Evolution of Automotive Sales: From Showroom to Screen

When you look ahead at what is in store for dealerships who excel at leveraging digital tools, the future is very bright. Those who successfully adopt these strategies first will stand to make the biggest gains in the short term, while competitors rush to catch up. 

Whether it’s shop-at-home convenience, more time to decide on things like virtual F&I offerings, or the ability to make a more customized purchase, buyers want this kind of convenience everywhere now. So there’s no better time to make sure your dealership is giving your customers what they want. And you’ll reap the benefits. 

From efficiency gains to customer satisfaction, and profitability to process improvements, when people and technology work together toward a common goal, great things can happen.

No matter where you are on your digital transaction journey, there’s no question our business is evolving. In this exciting time, ensure you’re making decisions that are right for your dealership, your customers and your future. By prioritizing the buyer experience and innovating to better serve them, you’ll be positioned for success. 


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