Step Back: How Experience in Automotive Hinders Our Ability to Create an Ideal Consumer Website

by Andrew Gordon

Do you know the difference between the Frigidaire Professional dishwasher and the Gallery dishwasher? Nope. How about Lenovo T and X series laptops? I certainly don’t. Otterbox Defender and Symmetry phone cases? I couldn’t tell you either.  

If you’re reading Dealer Magazine, you’ve likely earned your place in automotive through long hours, lot walks, and short BDC response times. You know your brand’s model trims by the features they’ve added each model year. You may be able to recognize the trim from a model code or the shade of paint from a color code. 

We’re experts at knowing our inventory and which vehicle is the right fit for each customer. When someone walks into the showroom and asks for the difference between two trims, we can easily explain that one is $1,500 more than the other but offers alloy wheels, a sunroof, and a better stereo. We can also guide through the two billion possible ways to build an F-150 to ensure they’re getting a vehicle that fits their needs. The dealership model and our teams have evolved over time to ensure that we can coach customers through this complex process by making it simple enough for the average car buyer. And we’re really good at it. 

Our websites, however, haven't kept up. Visit any franchise dealership’s website New Cars landing page. You’ll almost certainly be taken to their new car SRP, where every new vehicle in inventory is listed alphabetically. This is like taking a customer who walks into your dealership out into the lot and said “Which one do you want?” or having that customer walk into your showroom and, instead of consultatively helping them select the right vehicle for them, presenting them a list of all the new cars in your inventory in alphabetical order.

Think about it another way: can you imagine going to purchase an iPhone from Apple’s website and landing on a page showing every iPhone in their warehouse with 360º images of each phone? We know this doesn’t make sense for Apple. And when we step back, it’s clear it doesn’t make sense for dealerships. So if other retail giants wouldn’t do it online and we would never do it in our showroom, why do we do this to customers shopping on our website? 


Let’s look at Apple again, since Apple’s website is a masterpiece in educating customers and consultatively helping them select the right phone for their lifestyle. The iPhone landing page shares information about the differentiating features between models indigestible, simple terms. Trim comparisons are front and center, allowing customers to narrow down product by features or upfront pricing, the same way we would work with a customer in the showroom to decide which trim vehicle is right. Configurations like memory size and color are listed as options with relevant, clear pricing impacts. If a particular configuration is available but not in stock, it is clear that the customer can still select that phone with delayed shipping or after it’s been removed from backorder. Sounds similar to locating vehicles at the dealership, right? Trade-in programs, F&I, and accessories are introduced upfront with clear pricing and benefit statements and lead forms are absent and replaced with digital retail options and ways to ask for digital help with your purchase.

Lastly, iPhone customers are not purchasing their phones by serial number or VIN, instead of buying by model number or configuration. The automotive industry is the only industry that requires customers to purchase new items by serial number or VINs and we’re also one of the only industries that don’t have an easy way to purchase online. 

When we lay it out like this, it’s easy to see where dealership websites fall short of the showroom. But until we step back and review how we’re educating customers on our website, it’s clear that our experience in and knowledge of automotive actually hinders us, making us the worst judge of a good experience on our new vehicle website for customers. We know the difference between a CR-V LX and EX but forget what it was like to pick between the OfficeJet 3830 and 5255. We need to educate our customers on our websites the same way we would when they come to our showroom. It does not work to just list a trim name on an SRP and assume that’s enough to help customers shop for a car online. 

There’s been a lot of press recently about tech enabling Digital retail in automotive and the transformation of our industry. Today, I’m advocating for the most basic of technologies first: dealership websites that bring our best showroom practices together with the best of digital retail from other industries. Digital retail will follow naturally if we lead with educating the consumer and use all of the tools we already have from our showroom to create a truly differentiated experience from what our websites offer today.




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