By Steve Johnson
The auto retail sector has travelled far on its digital journey in recent times. Unquestionably, there’s an ever-growing array of functionality, features and content to entice customers. And with more grist to their online clicking mill comes an improving and seemingly more complete car- buying experience.
High up in the ‘significant progress category’ are online finance tools. Fast becoming a website standard, established vehicle search capabilities now include checking out finance costs and comparing variables.
Along with HP and PCP calculators, there are credit-rating checks and online application forms, together with explanations and video guides.
An outsider might be excused for thinking that online car buying is 95% job done – particularly now online part-ex valuations are becoming more widely adopted and, in some instances, included in the finance proposition.
So what are the main drivers pushing finance to the fore in online vehicle retailing? For one thing, it’s not entirely clear if the push is coming from meeting customer expectations – whether they use the facilities or not.
Shaun Harris, sales director at Codeweavers, said: “The drive to accelerate the impact of finance into the digital journey is coming from dealers and manufacturers. We are seeing a shift in the way that more dealers are embracing the opportunities.”
Richard Tavernor, iVendi chief operations officer, said: “The doubling of dealers connected to this company’s technology is also powered by a growing recognition among lenders and car portals that customer behaviour is changing.”
It’s striking that close working partnerships, particularly with the website developers, seem to be proving their worth.
“Take the difference between all the finance acronyms – our research shows many people don’t have the faintest comprehension” Lauren Cooke, Bluesky Interactive
With the need to build customer confidence in using finance facilities, there’s little margin for error; customers can so easily vote with their feet.
Harris said: “Our growth has been based on a collaborative ethos, our capacity to deliver on time and on budget. Uniquely, Codeweavers’ use of plug-in technology ensures that customers and ultimately dealers get speed, convenience and reliability.”
GForces, currently supporting around 50% of the UK’s top dealer groups, has partnered with Codeweavers and iVendi for over five years and operations director Tim Smith said: “Our relationship goes considerably beyond commercial arrangements. We allow our clients to be firmly in the driving seat when choosing a finance partner – we tailor products to meet their requirements on a best-fit basis.”
In terms of dealer acceptance, iVendi research suggests that more than 65% of the UK’s top 200 groups have some interactive finance options on their website and Tavernor said: “There are 7,000 ‘rooftops’, covering dealers, independents and supermarkets, connected to our systems. This is roughly twice the level of 12-18 months ago, with interest coming from dealer groups including Lookers, Jardine and Peter Vardy.”
It certainly looks as though online finance tools are not ‘me-too’ facilities. But what sort of impact are they having and is it all moving in the right direction, impacting on both leads and sales conversions?
Tavernor said: ”Dealers and lenders have needed to adapt to changes in consumer behaviour. The fact is that more and more of the car-buying journey is happening online, but the real departure is that few customers are entirely ‘showroom’ or entirely ‘online’. They naturally and intuitively switch between the two according to needs. One of our key innovations has been to enable dealers and lenders to track customers, whatever channel they choose – an omni-channel approach.”
Stimulated by a dealer enquiry to provide customers with access to their panel lender decisions, Codeweavers’ recently launched MultiCalc tool has ‘reverse-engineered’ the showroom finance calculator.
of the UK’s top 200 groups have interactive finance options
Harris said: “Historically, dealers make the choice as to which finance company a customer could use from its panel of lenders. Now, the dealer shows the customer the panel information and lets them make the choice. It is another step in de-mystifying the process.”
In a similar way, the iVendi In-Showroom Finance Comparator is designed to bring online-style functionality into the showroom. Tavernor said: “Structured, convenient and FCA-compliant, it’s so intuitive that the salesperson can even leave the customer to make their own finance selections.”
Returning to the pure online world, the shift from using desktop PCs to mobile devices has had a major impact on website design and development. Consumers now expect to access fully responsive websites when browsing via mobile or tablet – the freedom to transact anytime, anywhere, can only be a good thing to generate activity.
Harris said: “Customer needs have to be built around mobile platforms, not desktops. Our newest product has been designed entirely for mobile usage, with the capacity to reverse it into a desktop situation. The design process is very different – ‘swipe-ability’, ‘eye-lines’, layout, pixellation risks, fonts, colours and load speed are all factored into making a great-looking web page.“
Online finance tools clearly have widespread, if not universal, industry acceptance and there’s every indication that things are on track from technology and business perspectives.
The acid test is customer acceptance and that, according to one website provider, has some way to go yet.
Lauren Cooke, marketing manager with Bluesky Interactive, said: ”We see people interested in the finance options available to them, but that this doesn’t translate as often to full online applications.
“As I see it, the main hurdle will always be communicating the products and getting consumers to understand. Take the difference between all the finance acronyms – our research shows many people don’t have the faintest comprehension.”
There’s no question that online finance tools are proving popular. Codeweavers reports over 108,000 unique customers used its Flexicalc application in a recent eight-week period. And the old adage holds true – if you can measure it, you can improve it. Codeweavers’ finance trends report, for example, is particularly comprehensive, from deposit value and monthly payment popularity to demographics and browsing times. Putting customer buying habits to one side, ‘finance power’ means dealers can gain valuable sales and marketing insights to improve both online and showroom results.
Without doubt, it’s significant that the ‘technologists’ are not slackening off. Their mission – mantra, even – is to make applications and processes comprehensive, user-friendly and as technically robust as possible. For example; the second-generation iVendi platform was launched earlier this year. Other introductions include the company’s FCA Back-up Tool, which provides volumes of auditable information, and Quick Quote, said to be the fastest and easiest quotation generator.
Codeweavers talk about customers wanting a seamless online-to-showroom experience and online is where the dealer’s affordability attributes can give a competitive edge.
Harris said: ”Traditionally, if a customer took a test drive the dealer was on the way to a sale. Our analysis suggests that engaging a customer to provide finance information is the equivalent – a payment schedule they like.”
It seems inevitable that being able to buy and finance a car online is where things are headed – for those who chose to, of course.
Smith said: “The market is transitioning. The mandatory meeting with dealership business managers is steadily becoming obsolete as customers become better educated and research more online.”
The online finance snowball is gathering momentum – there’s a sense of inevitability about it. But for now, there’s every indication that customer behaviour will help keep it on a steady evolutionary path.