AutoNation Takes A Page From Tesla's Playbook, Promises Online Sales In 2015

November 26, 2014

Thanks to the internet, we've become accustomed to buying many things from the comfort of our living rooms. Cars are one of the few exceptions, but according to Auto News, AutoNation plans to change that next year.  

Every automaker has a website, and most dealers do, too. However, the vast majority of those sites only allow shoppers to customize a ride and learn about vehicle specs; if someone actually wants to purchase a vehicle, they have to visit a dealership.

Tesla, of course, is different. In many states, Tesla's website is the only way to purchase one of the company's all-electric vehicles because franchise laws prohibit Tesla from setting up dealerships (or even anything that looks like a dealership) itself.

Although Tesla represents a tiny fraction of America's auto market, the company is well ahead of the curve on the sales front. CEO Elon Musk and his team know that consumers loathe visiting dealerships, and they've made it very easy to buy or lease vehicles online. 

Now, AutoNation has taken note. America's largest auto retailer has invested $100 million to increase brand awareness and develop a website devoted not just to showing, but also selling vehicles. Ultimately, shoppers will be able to make downpayments, trade in their current vehicles, and arrange financing without leaving their laptops.

The service will roll out in stages, beginning on December 11 at 30 locations in Florida. Though this first phase -- dubbed "SmartChoice Express" -- won't offer a complete online sales experience, consumers will be able to customize vehicles and submit downpayments for the rides they want, dramatically speeding up the sales process once they reach the showroom.

After AutoNation's full sales site launches next year, shoppers will even be able to sign documents electronically. AutoNation says that could cut in-store interactions even further, with delivery of vehicles taking as little as fifteen minutes. 

OUR TAKE

Online sales are coming to the auto industry, and they're coming fast. Not only do consumers hate haggling with a commission-driven salesperson, but they're also increasingly accustomed to carrying out sales transactions quickly and easily online. Together, those factors spell trouble for today's auto dealers.

Of course, the change won't happen overnight, and there will certainly be holdouts. Many older shoppers are more comfortable with the dealership model, and they'll be the slowest to alter their buying habits. However, we wouldn't be surprised if even our grandparents began showrooming -- that is, visiting a dealership for a test drive, then carrying out sales transactions online.

All of which raises several important questions, like: what role do dealers play in our internet-centered future? Will haggling finally go the way of the dodo? Will dealerships become mere service centers? Will franchise laws lose their meaning as automakers themselves like Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagen find ways to sell directly to consumers?

We don't have all the answers to those questions, but we'd love to hear your thoughts. Share them in the comments below.

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