Benefits of eCommerce During COVID & Beyond

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on businesses across all industries around the world.

Whether it’s been the introduction of COVID-safe procedures and equipment, managing staff remotely or setting up a home delivery service, enterprises have been forced to pivot in order to survive during times of tight restrictions and social distancing.

 Many companies have embraced this period, using it as an opportunity to fast-track, what were once pipeline dreams of “going digital”, and introducing eCommerce solutions in order to remain a viable option for their customers during the pandemic. The automotive industry is no different, with dealerships adding online stores and digital vehicle sales functionality to their websites in order to reach customers even when they are unable to enter the showroom.

 A study undertaken by Bank of America, U.S. Department of Commerce and ShawSpring Research found that in the last decade, ecommerce sales grew at a gradual rate from 6% of retail sales in 2009 to 16% in 2019.

In March and April 2020 however, over an eight-week period, online sales climbed from 16% to 27%, without a doubt, as a result of the widespread lockdowns and reduction in face-to-face business operations. 

Despite these being US figures, we can confidently assume that our own digital sales stats would show a similar trajectory over the last few months, particularly during the periods of lockdown. This demonstrates just how important it is for businesses, no matter what they are selling, to be ready and able to transact online when customers are searching.

Like other sectors, the automotive industry has quickly adapted its operational models in order to continue generating revenue during these complex times. Many dealerships have introduced contactless vehicle service, car sanitising and at-home test drives in response to the imposed restrictions and health recommendations. There has also been a real push toward eCommerce, driving auto customers toward online purchase.

Our own investigation has shown that in the first weeks following the easing of the national restrictions, visitors to dealership websites increased by 43 percent. We also saw significant growth in the number of digital enquiries received by dealerships compared to the pre-pandemic figures from January. These results demonstrate that, despite the pandemic, there remains a strong level of interest in purchasing vehicles, however due to the ongoing need to social distance, customers are seeking to do so remotely.

So, how can dealers be best placed to meet the needs of customers in this increasingly digital world? 

The first priority for a dealer should be the introduction of online vehicle sales functionality on their website.  Over the last few months, many of our clients have added “Hold Car Now” or “Reserve” buttons to their inventory listings in order to secure deals online. This hybrid sales process allows customers to start the purchase of a vehicle online by putting down a credit card deposit to hold a car. The vehicle is then blanked out from the stock locator and the sale is completed in person – either in the dealership or at the customer’s home or office.

Given the significance of a vehicle purchase, and the other associated elements such as finance and aftermarket, it is important for a salesperson to be involved to some degree. However, to give customers that initial control and ability to commence the process from behind their screen presents dealers with an opportunity to reach the modern, digitally savvy customer who is well versed in shopping online and the instant gratification that comes with it.

Another consideration for dealers is the addition of an online store to their website.  Such pages can be utilised for the sale of vehicle accessories, parts or even brand merchandise. Establishing an online store sets a dealership apart from their competitors, as this is a fairly new concept in the auto industry.  It also enables dealers to quickly and easily build a database of customers to whom they can advertise, promoting products and offers, and encouraging repeat business. Furthermore, they can use these databases to build look-alike audiences of in-market customers to target on the digital advertising platforms.

Most importantly though, during these unprecedented times, ecommerce – be it an online store or a reserve-a car option – presents dealers with a means of transacting that never has to close down, regardless of any future restrictions or lockdowns that may be imposed.