How Auto Dealers Can Out-Deliver Online Retailers Through the Contact-Free Experience

One could hear the collective groan from the entire auto industry.  After an unprecedented, punt-formation year for manufacturers and dealers alike, which fortunately didn’t paralyze the category à la the average main street small business – alas, no one had any appetite for incoming missiles – let alone direct hits.

Enter Vroom’s Super Bowl ad.

In a market environment where everyone knows Carvana has seen exponential growth, auto dealers have had to reckon with growing consumer ability to take alternate paths to vehicle ownership – including seeming game-enders like folks deciding not to own one.  Vroom’s enthusiasm clearly aimed to capitalize on Carvana’s prior inertia – crowding a bumpy market even further – after a late 2019 round of Vroom funding produced roughly $250M.  This windfall appreciated into exceptionally well-timed currency the following year, where both brands saw and stoked explosive expansion.

As for Super Bowl Sunday, it seems many viewers take this angle: “Today, ads are mini-movies vying to one-up one another in memorability.  Entertain me.” – an invitation which marketers, historically, take very much to heart this given Sunday.  And if they can still manage to make their brand argument – all the better.

The point Vroom was trying to exploit was a pain point.  One they intended, along with others, to promise to prevent consumers from having to endure.  To compare traditional new car deal-making with an interrogative, hostage-style crisis made for entertaining cinema.  It was hard not to laugh.  I’m sure it was fun to write, fun to shoot, fun to cut and fun to launch.  And since many automotive sales folks are trained in the clear statistics supporting retaining buyers on site as long as possible – the core practice that this wild exaggeration is hyperbolizing still continues on one level or another – and so there’s a shared viewer experience with which to connect. The smuggled Vroom premise though, is far larger than the simple avoidance of face-to-face haggling and sales pressure – it’s a message of consumer empowerment, and even more noteworthy, it’s taking place in a category where a decent percentage of consumers feel relatively unempowered. For dealer marketing, it would be very easy (and entertaining) to fantasize about turning a Super Bowl-sized shoot budget into a series of mini movies about the potential ‘dark side’ of Vroom and Carvana-style vehicle purchase and ownership, as well.  While there’s no intention here of suggesting these scenarios be produced – let’s indulge anyway, shall we?

Imagine a nervous, perspiring driver in a vehicle emitting smoke from beneath the hood.  A super says “Day 8,” signifying the day after his Vroom or Carvana return policy would expire. He turns on the A/C for relief, fire comes out instead.  Coughing sickly, he attempts to park the car; the brakes fail – sending him over the concrete barrier – sparks flying from scraping the undercarriage.  He exits the rapidly perishing vehicle, and approaches a massive, dystopian vending machine which extends into the overcast clouds.  He commences to try to communicate through the intercom that his week-old purchase obviously needs service.  After some distorted laughter and feedback, and several uncomfortable attempts at conversation, loud rattles and bangs produce an old, metal oil can, which shoots out of the bottom of the vending machine, landing squarely on the driver’s feet.  He winces in pain.  We zoom up the exterior of the vending building, and through the clouds to reveal the penthouse floor – where our fugitive fat cats sip single malt scotch, smoking Cuban cigars in the glorious sunshine of service-free success.  Continuing to laugh – the one who sent the oil can barreling down the chute says (rolling a small round object in his hands), “Should I send down the knob for the radio?”  Both laugh hysterically – and we cut to a clever voice-over daring you to try this kind of transaction with your next vehicle.

Fun?  Hopefully.  Accurate?  Hardly.

As for Vroom – how about 8 seconds of HD video travelling through a watery seascape…  We reveal we are inside a flooded vehicle, still trapped amidst a storm.  We close with: “Ever wonder what your used car was doing last Spring Break?”  Cue thunder sound effects.

Or quick cuts of one driver after another saying ‘Who cares?  It’s a rental!’ after doing one recklessly undesirable thing after another to your future vehicle.

(It’s not like Vroom and Carvana don’t have vulnerable pain points anyone could exaggerate – and let’s face it – other than a little dose of P.T. Barnum with the ‘Vana-Vending machine, their one trick is delivering a car.)

So… for those of us who live and breathe automotive dealer marketing – (if we’re not shooting), what’s the good news? Glad you asked.  Well – the traditional dealership has numerous leverageable advantages over on-line players to actually accomplish and deliver the consumer-empowerment subtly promised by ‘new ways’ to buy vehicles.  Here’s a few:

Nowhere to Hide

Buyers are obviously empowered by the fact that an entrenched dealer has a sales and service location that cannot conceal itself behind a mere web location.  Purchasers know they can contact or visit brick and mortar stores where associates are going to (have to) care about their concerns. They also know if they choose to employ online activity for purchases – this fact won’t change.

Certified Used

Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicles essentially encapsulate the ‘purchasable confidence’ that comes with a factory-backed vehicle obtained locally.  Buyers have grown to trust the CPO vehicle, and manufacturers and dealers are rightfully protective of that trust.  Deliver me a CPO vehicle… everyone wins.  And more specifically, the confidence CPO vehicles present translates to consumer empowerment.

Equally Robust Online Presence

If there’s one thing 2020 catalyzed for auto dealers – it was online services.  And since consumers spend far more time researching their vehicles online than they do at any given lot, a robust online presence keeps pace with product offerings and details provided by virtual dealers, while maintaining the factory-backing, service advantages, and trust level of an authorized dealer.  It also offers the distance from the sales floor that consumers concerned with either viruses or sales pressure are clearly finding appealing about competitor platforms.

Far More Product Expertise

Any successful auto dealership is a literal wealth of personal product knowledge, far eclipsing that presented in any typical online experience.

Contactless Delivery Options

While this offering serves as a centerpiece for Vroom and Carvana, it can be well replicated at the individual dealer level as one more consumer-empowering option, that happens to come with all the benefits of dealer-obtained vehicles.  For example – the luxury brand SUV you had delivered locally may later get conveniently picked up and returned for service by the same modern flatbed delivery team.  From this angle, what could have been the faceless Vroom truck no one sees again, instead establishes a continuing representation of a local dealer’s evolving service model – while serving as its own rolling billboard to promote it.


Unique to the traditional auto dealer pain points that may be exploitable by online competitors, is tangible solvability.  Any dealer team paying attention to now widely available community and industry feedback, can, and does pivot in the face of change – and evolves their business model’s approach, tone and execution.  (Dealer reactions to pandemic restrictions proved this point soundly) And so if a committed dealer team decided to modify its approach to almost anything, the solutions could theoretically be deployed immediately.  As for online auto giants, pivoting to out-serve dealers at their own advantages would prove wildly insurmountable. The obvious advantage here lies in the traditional auto experience minimizing its own pain points while out-servicing online competitors’ leading advantage – a recipe where the consumer empowerment benefits become an easy sell to the end-buyer.  And here, we believe auto dealers can truly out-deliver the delivery giants.

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