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Car buying

The digital age of wheeling and dealing cars Add to ...

For decades, possibly ever since Henry Ford rolled his first Model Ts off the assembly line, one of the cardinal commandments of car sales was this: Thou shalt not discuss the final price until the customer is in the showroom.

Sure, you can give them a list price, but never, ever give them anything near the final sticker amount until they’re in the dealership and looking at a contract.

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So it’s not hard to imagine the shock to the system produced by the newest tenet of faith in the car dealer world: Thou shalt give prospective customers every piece of information they request, including the final price.

It’s similar to telling magicians they must explain how that rabbit got into the hat every time they perform the trick.

But that tectonic shift is just one of the many ways that the digital revolution that ushered in the Internet and all of its accompanying social media sites has turned the auto sales world on its head. With a wealth of information readily available, consumers have changed the rules.

“In the past, a salesman would avoid talking about price,” says Susan Gustaba, president and CEO at Mississauga Toyota. “[Technology] has totally changed that. If they ask you about price, you have to tell them. It really goes against the grain of what we used to do.

“It was always about trying to get people through your front door. Now, your front door is online.”

In the days before the Internet (BI) the salesperson’s life revolved around waiting for prospective customers to walk through the showroom doors. The rest of the time was spent calling customers in hopes of persuading them it was time to buy a new car.

Today, the average salesperson spends a good part of the day combing through e-mails and chatting online with prospective customers. That’s because more than 80 per cent of those looking for a vehicle start their shopping online – and one-third of those do it through mobile devices.

So when a customer comes through the showroom doors, he or she is armed with piles of information on every car they’ve looked at. In many cases, they know more about the vehicle and the competitors’ models than the salesperson does.

And in many cases, they’ve already had close contact with the dealership – though it’s close contact of the virtual kind. They may have chatted online with the salesperson and may even have been given a tour of the car through an iPad.

At Mississauga Toyota, for example, tablets are essential tools for sales staff.

“For a lot of buyers, especially younger ones, they’re more comfortable online than they are in being a showroom,” says Todd Burgone, executive director of the Trillium Auto Dealers Association. “It’s becoming more and more the norm.”

That’s why organizations such as TADA are focusing on the new technology, such as digital dealer conferences in Ottawa on Feb. 19 and Toronto on Feb. 20.

“It’s forced sales staff to be bigger, faster and stronger,” says Gubasta, whose dealership has an interactive website, a Facebook page with 7,000 “friends” and a Twitter account.

“Just when people were getting comfortable with the whole web scene, social media and consumer reviews have thrown the business into a tailspin,” says Bruno Lucarelli, automotive marketing consultant with BCI Media Services in Wayside, N.J. “Now, people are more interested in what other people have to say about you rather than what you have to say about yourself.”

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