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The world of retail is changing rapidly. Shoppers want to connect with the companies they do business with on their terms – when, where and how they choose.

Ford of Canada is gathering consumer research to better understand how the vehicle shoppers of today, and tomorrow, will make their purchase decisions and how auto makers can better support customers throughout the years of vehicle ownership.

A key driver behind the new realities of retailing is the Gen Z consumer. Gen Z is the largest single demographic in the world – they are between 13 and 21 years of age, and account for 21 per cent of the world's population. But it is not just their numbers that make them influential. By 2020, their purchase power will equal a GDP of more than $10 trillion – that's only five years from now – and their expectations, in terms of the purchase process, are very different from other generations. Gen Z has been immersed in mobile technology since birth; they send more than 100 texts a day on average.

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And while we usually expect older generations to set the tone for the marketplace and to be the key influencers in society – that's not the case with Gen Z. This younger generation is changing the way the older generations do things. Their connected world is becoming the norm and people of all ages are quickly adopting this technology-based lifestyle.

Based on this research, five key trends are emerging that will help shape a better customer experience:

Make an emotional connection

What is fascinating about this technological shift is that it is driving consumers to look for an emotional connection, an experience, from the brands they buy from. The research shows that consumers who feel "emotionally engaged" with a brand are 25 per cent more likely to buy from that brand. Consumers want a relationship with the companies they deal with.

Earn their trust

Consumers are increasingly skeptical, demanding and impatient. And they now have many more ways to tell companies exactly what they think – a single Tweet can reach thousands of people in moments.

Customers no longer believe that companies have all the answers. Vehicle shoppers walk in to the dealership armed with a wealth of information, including advice and tips from people who have visited that dealership before. To build trust, businesses have to be completely transparent.

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Optimize 'face' time

When a dealer does get the opportunity to meet a customer face-to-face – for example, when a customer comes in for a test drive or brings in a vehicle for servicing – it is critical that the dealership makes the most of that moment. It is a chance to show customers that you understand what matters to them.

At Ford, service advisers across the country recently attended training with Charles MacPherson, a career butler, best-selling author, educator and TV personality. They learned tips on how to make customers feel comfortable and well cared for when they bring their vehicles in for service. For example, a strong handshake, an understanding ear, a look in the eye – are all small efforts that can make a big difference to a customer.

Respect people's time

These ultra-connected lives are busy. Time is the greatest luxury. People are looking for increased convenience in their everyday tasks so that they have more time to spend on what they enjoy most.

In the auto business, we need to simplify and improve the buying process. A recent Ford study showed that people actively try to limit the time spent at dealerships. Buying that new car, truck, CUV/SUV should be fun, convenient and rewarding.

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A 'web-to-retailer' experience

Most vehicle shoppers start their search online and have already narrowed their choices to a few models by the time they come to the dealership for a test drive. Consumers want a seamless transition from their web experience, to the showroom experience.

Too often, there is a disconnect between these two worlds. The research shows that 89 per cent of consumers try to contact dealers during their purchase process, and one in four of those consumers end up buying from another brand because they didn't get the response they expected.

At Ford, we are looking at every step of the customer journey and asking ourselves: How do we build a better experience?

With growth forecasted for new vehicle sales in Canada for the next several years, the opportunity for dealers who get this right is huge. It will take understanding of what matters most to each customer and changing practices to meet those new expectations. It is an incredible challenge and an unprecedented opportunity.

Dianne Craig is president and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Company of Canada, Ltd

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