Black Friday sales are set to kick off, and while the American retail phenomenon has traditionally seen shoppers swarm into department stores in dangerous volumes it’s increasingly becoming a day of keen deals for online consumers too.
Carmakers in the ‘States also get involved in the retail frenzy that is Black Friday, both on the dealership forecourt and on the web, but online car sales is something that hasn’t quite taken off in this country just yet.
But why not? When I say there’s nothing you can’t buy online, I really mean it; a can of dehydrated water is a personal favourite (just add water!), and it’s hard to look past a box of poop for your least favourite person’s stocking… erm, filler.
But cars, being the second-most expensive thing a person will buy in their lifetime, are naturally a different kettle of fish. You’ll buy a fridge or a barbeque, but are you brave enough to hit ‘Buy Now’ on an entire car – even if it wears an attractive Black Friday discount?
A relative of mine is a big fan of buying sight unseen, though strictly speaking, he’s actually buying via email through a vehicle broker. He simply picks the car, trim level and colour – in his case, his last buy was a Mazda 3 for the Better Half – and the car was sourced at the cheapest price and trucked to their door from interstate.
But what about a test drive, I asked? “Honestly, at that end of the car market, they all feel pretty much the same to us,” he shrugged. “We could pop down to a dealer to try one if we wanted, but we like the brand, and this will be our third one.”
Mazda itself doesn’t sell its cars online, but its rival Subaru certainly does. In fact, it was arguably the first mainstream brand to offer a car for sale exclusively via the internet. The 2012 BRZ was an experiment in bypassing the dealership model completely… and with only 200 cars available from July to December of that year, it was a reasonably low-risk exercise.
“It was a massive success,” says Subaru Australia’s public relations manager David Rowley. “The offer opened at midnight, and the first customer logged on at 1245am and bought their car in 20 minutes. The demand even crashed our website!”
He says that 50 BRZs were sold in the first hour and a half, and all 200 were gone by 3am on the same day.
Mr Rowley says the relative simplicity of the model on sale helped a lot. “All information was available online, and we offered a national drive-away price on the car,” he explains. “There weren’t too many demonstrator models, but a customer could find one by entering their postcode. We also had a dedicated customer support base here to regularly update the customer.”
Subaru still sells cars online, and has actually just expanded its operations with a new Build and Buy website tool. It allows a potential customer to pick any car from Subaru’s range, including the Forester, Impreza and XV, by model, colour and options, and prices it at a driveway figure.
More than 15,000 builds have been performed online this year, and even though they don’t all end up as a purchase, Subaru Australia managing director Colin Christie says it offers “an exciting opportunity” for the company.
“The ability to purchase a vehicle entirely online ensures we continue to offer access to Subaru when and where our customer wants.”
It might sound like Subaru is making the dealer experience irrelevant, but Mr Rowley says that’s definitely not the case.
“We consider the dealer delivery requirement an essential part of the loop,” he says, “not only just in terms of hand-over, but also for the entrée to the servicing relationship, beyond the initial purchase.”
Not There Yet
Other companies with a finger in the online car retailing pie are Tesla (which doesn’t sell cars through a traditional dealership network) and Toyota, which has recently begun trialling an internet sales model with a small number of dealers. However, they’re the exceptions: Skoda, like many other car brands in this country, is taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude towards the notion of people buying its Octavias and Kodiaqs online.
“We do believe that in future, and even today, some people want to buy their cars online,” Skoda’s Board Member for Sales and Marketing, Alain Favey, told WhichCar. “We are working on solutions for this, because we want to offer the customer the whole deal, from information to financing the car under one umbrella.”
As part of the Volkswagen Group of car companies, Skoda is waiting for a new central digital platform with extended e-commerce capability that covers all of the group’s brands to come onstream. Mr Favey says it’s still a couple of years away yet, but will potentially offer services like remote firmware and software upgrades to its cars.
He’s still not convinced, though, that customers are ready to pick up the mouse and buy cars online en masse.
“We don’t think it’ll be a big number of customers,” he says.
“Maybe by 2025, it’ll still be only five to 10 per cent of customers buying completely online. We still think that buying a car is such an important investment for people, and it’s such an emotional choice that has to be made that people will still want a formal point of contact and a similar buying experience to the one they have today.
“That’s why we’re still investing in our dealer network. Even in 20 years’ time, we believe it’ll still be the route of choice for the majority of people to buy a car.”
Offline is Still Okay
While buying a car in a one-stop-shop way via the interwebs is certainly convenient, the fact is that that same convenience will end up costing you a bit more on average.
The way to save money on a new car is to be prepared to buy something that the dealer has on their lot, rather than holding out for a particular colour or trim level. Car yards thrive on turnover, and if you can live with a white car instead of an orange one, then you’re more likely to be able to ink a deal for a few bucks off.
Mr Rowley counters that by suggesting that the convenience of doing everything at home – while still having the option to come and see a car in the metal – will attract customers regardless.
“We see online selling as a complimentary activity to the dealer network,” he says. “Trade-in information, insurance and finance through Subaru… it’s clear, time-efficient and offers the customer more choice than ever before.”
Have you bought a car online, or would you never do that in a million years? Let us know in the comments below!