Driving Convenience -- Toyota Marin General Manager Mike Christian expects to triple the number of online sales to 90 cars per month because it's a service customers want, and few competitors are offering./Photos by Chris Constantine
Kristina Ruud-Hewitt spent three months car shopping before choosing the Highlander Hybrid. It balanced low carbon emissions with plenty of cargo space. Another attractive selling feature: She could buy it online.
The 51-year-old artisan was able to complete the paperwork on Toyota Marin’s Express online store before going to bed, and picked up the SUV before lunch the following day.
“I usually don’t get home from work until 8 or 9 p.m., so it’s hard for me to get to the dealership,” she says. “None of the other dealerships offered online purchasing. It was nice to be able to send everything off ahead of time and know what I was preapproved for.”
The San Rafael, Calif., dealership sells about 30 vehicles a month online and General Manager Mike Christian sees the potential to triple that growth. It’s a service that customers want, and few competitors are offering.
“Customers are very busy and everybody is looking to save time,” he says. “In the past, consumers would go from dealership to dealership until they found the car they want. Today, the average consumer is spending 11 hours of online research before coming into a dealership. We offer the ability to do all of that research in one touchpoint, in a transparent way and the ability to purchase the car online.”
What the Customer Wants
For years, Toyota Marin, part of the Price-Simms Auto Group, has been closely following online buying trends and exploring ways to stay ahead of the curve. Christian also has observed how the younger generation, like his 14-year-old son, interacts with technology, favoring online and video chat options over traditional channels.
“It’s a no-brainer when you think about online retailing and where it’s going in the future,” he says. “Things we never conceived people doing, like buying shoes online, have become commonplace. Why is this the only industry you can’t get a price and you can’t shop online? And how long should we hold out for that? If that’s the way consumers want to do business, we should fulfill that.”
Toyota Marin beta tested a few online tools before partnering with Roadster, a local startup, to customize the online platform and ensure compliance with California regulations. Customers have access to the MSRP, dealer discounts, factory rebates, tax, title and license pricing, can compare lease vs. financing options, and receive credit checks and exact payment and trade-in information.
“Word is starting to get out about the transparency and technology available at Toyota Marin,” he says. “No one, including Edmunds, TrueCar and Cox Automotive, has the ability to offer everything we’re offering right now. That’s what makes this product so unique.”
Always Connected -- Customer Kristina Ruud-Hewitt (left) bought her Highlander Hybrid online, but appreciated that Sales Manager Doreen Tan was available to answer questions, day or night.
Human Touch Still Important
While it’s clear that customers like the flexibility of shopping at home where they don’t have to negotiate (the site offers instant upfront pricing) the dealership remains as relevant as ever. Consumers still have questions and want to interact with sales professionals and test drive the product.
The website also offers a chat function so customers can ask questions, and a “personal concierge” is available to provide answers around the clock.
Sales Manager Doreen Tan is often the first point of contact for online customers. Within 20 minutes of receiving a customer’s initial information, Tan sends a message to confirm receipt of the credit application or to see if there are questions. Many are surprised at the quick response, but appreciate the human connection.
“Most of them reply with a question to verify it’s a real person,” she says. “It’s a big purchase and we want to make them feel at ease.”
Some customers request additional photos, ask about add-ons or want information on other models. Customer Ruud-Hewitt recalls receiving a fast response from Tan sometime before midnight. Tan followed up with a phone call at 9 a.m., and a few hours later Ruud-Hewitt was driving off the lot in her new SUV.
“Being able to interact with someone at the dealership at night was reassuring, especially for my husband, who thought I was sending our information off into the ether,” Ruud-Hewitt says. “I found it was all very upfront, easy and it felt really secure.”
About 90 percent of online buyers choose to pick up their vehicle at the dealership over home delivery. When they arrive, the paperwork is printed and the vehicle is detailed and ready to go. A salesperson is on hand to answer any questions about the vehicle, and the delivery process usually takes 30 minutes or less.
A 2016 Cox Automotive study found that customers dislike “lengthy transactions marked by filling out lots of paperwork.” They also expect a fair price, which is viewed as transparent and honest, but not necessarily the lowest in town.
“On Express, we validate our pricing with third-party pricing from Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book,” Christian says. “Look at Amazon. They’re not the cheapest, but you’re paying for the service and convenience and ease of doing business. We’re not looking to be the lowest-cost provider. We’re looking to provide the greatest service in the fastest, easiest and most transparent method possible.”
The Toyota Marin Express site is a constant work in progress with regular tweaks and updates. Pre-owned vehicles are now available and a new mobile app is transforming sales both externally and internally.
At the dealership, sales professionals are managing everything from the meet and greet and needs assessment to closing a transaction using an app-based solution on an iPad.
“Soon there will be no desktops and the entire sales process will be handled with an iPad,” he says. “The beauty of this is it will integrate with our CRM (customer relationship management) vendors so we can do soft credit pools and offer different alternatives for the customer from an iPad. It’s going to give a new sales associate all the information they need to go through 23 model configurations and help them do a needs assessment in a nonconfrontational way with in-store customers.”
Every dealership is looking for ways to increase productivity, and this platform delivers.
“The salesperson is as relevant today as they’ve always been,” he says. “We just want it to look and feel different. The goal is to average 20 cars per person per month and surpass the national average of 11 or 12. They see it as a tool to make their job easier. It’s a huge differentiator for us.”
By Karen Nielsen