Mercedes-Benz website (German version)Enlarge Photo
Over the past few years, salespeople have been losing ground. A growing number of cafes and restaurants allow customers to place orders on phones or tablets, reducing waiters to food-runners. Some retail boutiques work in a similar way. And that's to say nothing of online stores ranging from Amazon to Zappos, which rely on programmers instead of sales personnel.
Many folks thought that car salespeople were immune to the automation trend -- after all, folks making an auto-sized financial investment surely need/expect personal assistance, right? As it turns out, though, such assumptions are probably wrong.
Tesla, for example, doesn't have a true network of dealerships, so it relies heavily on its website for auto sales. Recently, General Motors began a similar push to sell directly to shoppers through the websites of its four auto brands. And a start-up called Carvana went one step further, creating a vending machine for automobiles.
Mercedes has begun this bold experiment by limiting sales to just four vehicles: the A-Class, B-Class, CLA, and CLS. The website offers no configuration options, which is bad for picky purchasers, but for drivers wanting their car in a hurry, it means minimal wait time. Buyers pay a set, no-haggle price, and the vehicle is delivered by the nearest local dealer who has the vehicle in stock.
If all goes according to plan, Mercedes will expand the program to Poland next year, followed by other markets. It will also enlarge the number of models available online.
It's pretty clear that we're en route to a tipping point. We have to believe that within the not-too-distant future, a significant percentage of new-car sales will take place online, with dealers serving as facilitators rather than sellers.
While that may sound like bad news for car salespeople, there is a silver lining. Auto salespeople have a terrible reputation: in fact, Americans trust the U.S Congress more than they trust your average car salesperson (and given Congress' approval ratings right now, that's saying something). Changing the function of auto salespeople could dramatically change the way they're viewed by the public. Remove the sometimes-shady, commission-hungry veneer, and they become average, everyday service personnel, no better or worse than bank tellers or bellhops.
Of course, some auto sellers will refuse to give up their traditional lifestyle. We have a hunch that most of those holdouts will switch to the used vehicle market, where sales personnel will remain central -- at least for a while longer.