Category: Online F&I

Caution: Learning Curve Ahead

In last week’s episode, I warned that dealer groups proceeding aggressively into Digital Retail may suffer for it.  This has gotten some pushback.  Regular readers know that I have been a staunch proponent of Online F&I for many years.  Indeed, my work at PEN and F&I Express has done much to advance the cause. 

I gave this warning in the spirit of full disclosure, and to manage expectations.  Now I am in the awkward position of having to press my charge against a technology which I actually support.  If that sounds complicated, consider this:

Luddites – Veteran F&I Director Justin Gasman, quoted recently in Wards, says that F&I will never be totally digital.  “People who say that are from tech companies,” he quipped.  I call this the Luddite position but, in fairness, I am one of the tech guys he’s referring to.

Boosters – Cox Automotive regularly produces surveys with findings like: 63% of customers would be “more likely” to buy F&I products if they could learn about them online.  Coming from an opinion poll, this is mere boosterism. 

Realists – My position is somewhere between these extremes, hence the warning.  I was addressing the Big Six dealer groups, who are regularly ranked on F&I performance.  I do not want to be the consultant telling Mike Jackson to go all in, and then have to explain why he has slipped out of first place.

If you go to a dealer and say, “Hey, look, we’ve got this great solution, but the profitability is only half of what you had before,” that’s really going to slow down adoption.

Automotive News interviewed some realists last year, and they all share my cautious optimism.  The quote above is from Safe-Guard’s David Pryor.  The consensus goes something like this:

  1. Present F&I products online, early in the process, and include pricing.
  2. Use an API to select the right coverage, and AI to make recommendations.
  3. Experiment with (A/B test) various digital media.
  4. Integrate DR with your instore process, training, and metrics.

Roadster’s COVID-19 Dealer Impact Study found that dealers who already had Digital Retail saw improved gross, while the COVID adopters did not.  “Not a magic bullet,” it says, instead emphasizing the improved efficiency.  Other realists, as here, had the same experience.

Digital Retail is like any other new process.  There is risk, reward, and a learning curve.  That’s not too complicated.

DR and Public Dealer Groups

In today’s post, subtitled, “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” we look at where the Big Six public dealer groups stand on Digital Retail.  Some of them get it, some of them don’t, and others have missed the point.

“Once they start the process online, customers tend to buy a car at a much higher rate than … walking into our showroom” – Daryl Kenningham, Group 1

It’s not essential to spin up a distinct site, though many have taken this approach.  It’s a clever way to get in the same space as Carvana.  Thus, we have new brands Driveway, Clicklane, and Acceleride.  For example, you can enter Group 1’s DR process from either Acceleride or the Group 1 site. 

  • Penske – Penske started experimenting with DR way back in 2015 and something called Preferred Purchase.  Today, it’s still called Preferred Purchase, but it’s the DDC Accelerate system.
  • Group 1 – GP1 recently (2019) launched a Roadster implementation called Acceleride.  It is now selling more than 1,000 units per month, including new cars.  This is the top initiative in their investor deck, clearly showing management attention.
  • Asbury – Asbury was also an early adopter, starting with Drive (2016) and now their own Clicklane offering.  By my count, this is their third experiment – exactly what you want to see with digital transformation.
  • Lithia – Lithia has a branded DR site called Driveway which, unfortunately, requires users to create an account before entering the process.  As I wrote in Design Concepts for Online Car Buying, you don’t create an account until the customer is ready to save a deal.
  • AutoNation – AutoNation has made strategic investments in DR vendors like Vroom, and launched its own AutoNation Express in 2014.  As with Driveway, step one is a lead form.
  • Sonic – Sonic announced a plan to use Darwin but, alas, there is still no sign of DR on either the Sonic or EchoPark site.  Maybe the new eCommerce team will fix that. 

I can understand why new-car dealers might want to start with a lead form.  New cars are commodities, and vulnerable to price shopping.  This is where used-car dealers CarMax and Carvana have an advantage.  Otherwise, DR requires a strong commitment to price transparency.

Digital Retail is synergistic with modern sales practices, like one-touch and hybrid teams.  Sonic is the leader here, and has the highest used-car ratio, so you would expect them to have an edge.

Finally, it’s hard to sell protection products online.  Groups with growing DR penetration are likely to see reduced PVR.  This has long been a knock against Carvana.  Experts agree that the solution here is an AI-based “recommender.” 

Top Digital Retail Systems

I have been writing about Digital Retail for several years now.  Keeping tabs on the players was part of my job at Safe-Guard, and people still call for my notes.  Since I am moving on to a new venture, I figured I would simply publish the list.

First, some notes about the category.  I split out online car dealers, TPC platforms, and finance-first sites.  Obviously, CarMax is omnichannel, but they’re not a software vendor.  My definition of a digital storefront is given here, and I differentiate then from TPC sites here

Anybody with a foothold in the dealer’s website is using it to pivot into digital retail.

The “pivoter” category from this last article is especially relevant, as more and more vendors transition into the space and flesh out their offerings.  Finance-first sites are those, like Rodo and AutoGravity, where customers go for finance and then turn over to a dealer.

List of Automotive Digital Retail Vendors

  • Roadster – Roadster’s Express Storefront was the first to use the “plug-in” delivery strategy.  They are in some very innovative dealers, like Paragon and Galpin. 
  • TagRail – Similar to Roadster.  My pal Kiran using analytics as a differentiator.  Now owned by digital marketing firm Fox.  I wrote about DR and Marketing tie-ups in my survey, DR and Dealer Websites.
  • MotoInsight – I did an OEM project with Moto, and visited their offices in Toronto.  I like the team, and what I especially like is the idea that dealers will use the same system instore that the customer uses online.  I profiled them here.
  • Gubagoo – Gubagoo started as a chat engine, and has now developed a DR solution called Clicklane for Asbury Automotive. Lithia also has a branded DR offering, called Driveway.
  • Modal – Formerly Drive, from serial entrepreneur Aaron Krane.  I cited Krane and Roadster CEO Andy Moss, here, as examples of “disrupters” from outside the industry.  Modal has recently inked a deal with Honda, and raised $15 million in funding.
  • CarNow – Another entrant from the chat space, I was surprised to discover so many dealers using CarNow’s BuyNow plug-in.  It seems to be especially popular on Dealer.com sites.
  • AutoFi – AutoFi expanded successfully from a finance plug-in to full DR with Express Checkout, used by a number of dealers including Ricart Ford.
  • Darwin – Darwin is unique in having pivoted to DR from an instore system.  They’re at Herb Chambers, branded as Smart Buy, and also my local Atlanta dealer, Jim Ellis. 
  • Digital Motors – This is a very new entrant (2020) but a strong team including Andy Hinrichs, formerly of AutoGravity.
  • Dealer eProcess – Getting DR from your website provider seems like a good idea, buy my survey found few instances of it.  Others in this category are Dealer Fire and Dealer Inspire.
  • Make My Deal – MMD is gone now, folded into Accelerate and attached to DDC.  So, it’s in the dealer website category, not a storefront.

Sorry if I missed anyone.  New entrants pop up every day.  I would say that the space is becoming crowded, but there are still thousands of unserved dealers.  Follow my Twitter feed, @ViragConsulting and the #DigitalRetail tag, for regular updates. 

DR and Dealer Websites

I was chatting with my pal Kiran Karunakaran about his new role at Fox Dealer.  You may recall that Kiran’s DR solution, TagRail, was acquired by Fox earlier this year.  At that time, I figured DR would be an absolute requirement for dealer websites, and I expected to see CDK bid for, say, CarNow.  Here are the pairings:

  • Fox Dealer, TagRail
  • Dealer Inspire, Online Shopper
  • Dealer Fire, Precise Price
  • Dealer eProcess, SARA
  • Dealer.com, Accelerate

Note that, with the exception of TagRail, these DR solutions were all developed by their website partners.  Missing are the pure DR startups I usually write about: Roadster, Modal, and Moto.  Maybe they’re better off uncommitted.  I decided to test this theory with a little research.

I went through Wards’ Top 100 Internet Dealers, identifying the website provider for each one, and their DR solution.  The Wards sample skews strongly toward DDC, at 60%.  The Datanyze survey (chart above) has DDC at 18%.  Remember, I am not looking for market share so much as patterns in DR adoption.

For example, 20% of “top internet dealers” had no DR solution.  That was a surprise.  A few of these had cobbled together the Dealertrack frame with Trade Pending and a homebrew payment calculator – not DR as it is usually defined.

Same-vendor pairings for DR and website were rare

Some dealers use the same website and DR solution across all their stores, and some skip around.  Herb Chambers uses DDC and Darwin faithfully except in his Chevy store, which uses CDK and Shop Click Drive.  Paul Rusnak and Fred Anderson are faithful to Roadster and Gubagoo, respectively, but vary their choice of website providers.  Of course, these choices are often mandated by the manufacturer.

Of manufacturer DR preferences, the best known is probably Shop Click Drive, followed by AutoFi.  AutoFi is historically associated with Ford, and still used mainly by Ford dealers.  I did find one Kia dealer in Peoria using AutoFi.  Chrysler’s DriveFCA is powered by Carzato.

Same-vendor pairings for DR and website were rare, at 12%.  These were almost exclusively DDC with Accelerate.  I found one instance of Dealer Inspire with its mate, Online Shopper.  Free-agent DR solutions did much better than those associated with website providers.  Roadster, Darwin, and CarNow together accounted for 59% of DR in the sample dealerships.

As it happens, CDK did not acquire a DR solution.  Instead, they sold their website business to Sincro, a digital marketing company.  The Sincro announcement reminds us that what I am calling the “website business” may also include digital content, advertising, SEO, social, reputation, CRM, and lead-gen.

The right framework is not DR plus website, or even DR plus website and marketing, but a continuum across the customer journey.  The journey begins with the various marketing services required to land the customer on the website, and ends with point-of-sale (POS) systems like menu and desking.

Recall that Roadster, Darwin, and Moto also play in the POS space.  At the other end, there are pure-play marketing agencies that don’t do websites.  You can evaluate strategy for these companies in terms of where they are concentrated along the journey, and where they are extending.

Dealer Fire moved up funnel, through their partnership with Stream, and Fox extended down a notch with TagRail.  Darwin is unique in having moved to DR from point of sale. (I am using the linear model for simplicity. To account for CRM and reputation, you need the loop model.)

My goal here was to explore the synergy between DR and dealer websites, and the answer is that they’re not as compatible as they appear.  Research showed much less crossover than I had expected, between marketing agencies on one side of the BUY NOW button, and DR specialists on the other.

Digitally Disrupting Dealer Systems

I hesitated to use the D word here.  So much of digital is normal, healthy evolution, that saying “disruption” is like crying wolf.  So, I will digress briefly into that discussion before presenting my thesis, which is: traditional dealer-system providers are about to be whipsawed bigly by digital retail.

According to Gartner, digital disruption is “an effect that changes the fundamental expectations and behaviors … through digital capabilities.”  This idea of changing expectations is echoed by Aaron Levie, to the effect that businesses “evolve based on assumptions that eventually become outdated.”

If your UI even vaguely resembles an airline cockpit, you’re doing it wrong – John Gruber

Another common theme in studies of digital disruption is that people will come from outside the industry, bringing new attitudes and techniques that incumbents can’t match – something I like to call “advanced alien technology.”

Modal’s Aaron Krane came from online sports betting, and famously wondered why there is no “buy now” button on the Mercedes-Benz web site.  Andy Moss of Roadster came from online fashion retail.  I think I am on solid ground arguing that DR pioneers bring something fundamentally different.

In fact, I can identify the baseline assumption which is now outdated.  In olden times, the user of auto retail software was an auto retail employee.  These were experts, executing an esoteric process, and they could be trained to deal with crappy user experience and disjointed workflow.

Today’s user is, of course, the car buyer.  A few years ago, I wrote that each of the six canonical tasks in DR would need a “buddy” on the dealer side, with which to share information.  For example, the website may disclose prices for protection products, and it would be nice to pull retail markup from the menu system.

It’s hard to believe how quickly DR has evolved.  Roadster had just launched Express Storefront when I wrote that article, and already the buddy system is dead.  If a car buyer can desk her own deal, at home in her pajamas, why use a different system in the dealership?

The advantages to using the same system in store and at home include trust, transparency, cost savings, and reduced demands on the salespeople.  The new generation of in-store DR means that salespeople can be experts in customer service (and cars) instead of complicated software.

This marks the culmination of important trends in auto retail, from “one experience” at Sonic to “single point of contact” at Schomp, and it should serve as a wakeup call to old-school software vendors. Digital retail will drive a gradual shift in dealer process, but a rapid one in software.

Digital Retail Taxonomy

The tech buzz at NADA this year was Digital Retail.  Tagrail has a new partnership, with dealer site provider Fox, and Moto showcased some of their OEM projects.  Roadster has an aggregation marketplace, which I’ll get to in a minute, and Modal (Drive) was conspicuously absent.  I hope they’re okay.

All dealer site providers are now claiming the hip acronym DR, including some that are way off the mark.  This week I want to cut through the clutter and taxonomize a bit.  We’ll see how well my predictions from five years ago have held up.

Dealers will migrate onto the most capable of the platform sites, and … the winning platforms will not be mere lead providers.

I am going to skip the consolidators and the used-car sites, to focus on DR solutions for franchised new car dealers.  That was the context for the earlier article (and the pull quote).  The grid above divides the DR space into four segments: True DR, Pivoters, TPC, and Marketplaces.

True Digital Retail

A true DR solution must handle the six canonical functions, do the paperwork online, and save the deal (not a lead) for use in the dealership.  True, not many customers will do the full process online, but you have to offer the capability.  Qualifying questions here are along the lines of “can you sell a service contract and book it online with the administrator?”

I don’t want to be pilloried for omitting someone, but my short list (when asked) goes: Roadster, Moto, Modal, Tagrail, AutoFi, and CarNow.  I can find CarNow dealers pretty easily online, paired with a variety of site providers.  Here in Atlanta, Ed Voyles is an example.

Pivoters

Anybody with a foothold in the dealer’s website is using it to pivot into DR.  The first group of pivoters are what I call “finance first” sites.  AutoGravity, DriveTime, and AutoFi are sites customers use to check their buying power before going into the dealership.  Based on intel from Ricart Ford, I would say that AutoFi has successfully pivoted into the DR segment.

Gubagoo is using their foothold in chat to pivot as “conversational commerce.”  SpinCar is adding protection products to their VDP real estate, which is right where they belong.  Even popular F&I menu Darwin is moving online with Darwin Direct.

Third Party Classifieds

My model for a marketplace is Autotrader plus its DR feature, Accelerate.  However, the other incumbents have not followed suit.  In fact, Cars.com “does not sell vehicles directly and is never a party to any transaction between buyers and sellers.”  This space is inhabited only by brave new entrants like Joydrive, GoGoCar, and Deliver My Ride.

As I wrote here, this model has plenty of challenges, like finding UX and services that will appeal to all dealers – not to mention the customers.  Dealers may prefer a simple clickthrough to their own DR solution.  This is the backdrop for Roadster’s Express Marketplace.

Roadster Marketplace

Roadster’s marketplace operates just like a TPC site.  It has the familiar VSP/VDP with faceted search, but then it segues into a full digital storefront.  The reference site I looked at, Cochran group in suburban Pittsburgh, lists 3,500 new vehicles in 18 makes, from 26 rooftops – with transparent pricing!

My first reaction, I have to say, was “Holy crap, they’ve actually done it!”  They have made their own private Autotrader.  Of course, the same market area lists ten times as many new cars on Autotrader but – funny thing – they all use Accelerate.  Competition is wonderful that way.

The arrows on my grid suggest some strategic directions:

  • Single-function solutions will pivot to become storefronts. AutoFi is an example.
  • Third-party sites will add DR functionality. Accelerate is an example.
  • As storefronts grow to serve dealer groups, they will tend toward marketplaces.

I guess the only remaining frontier would be for two unaffiliated groups to cooperate on a single platform, as I wrote in Toward a Digital Auto Marketplace, maybe in contiguous nonoverlapping markets.  The eCommerce term is “coopetition.”  Or, maybe Accelerate will gain some traction.

Tier One Digital Storefront

Today, we continue our discussion of digital retail, this time from an OEM perspective.  Suppose you work for Morris Motor Finance and you want to get in on the fun.  The most straightforward way is to subsidize your dealers’ use of a storefront.  Simply negotiate a discount with one of the leading vendors and supply it to dealers who meet their penetration goals.  You may already have programs like this, encouraging dealers’ use of a credit system or a menu.

In addition, you may want to add digital retail capabilities to your tier one website.  This is a bit of a balancing act.  The customer is here to see the full range of vehicles and accessories, along with your financing options and Morris branded protection products.  Once you make the turnover to a specific dealer, the selection will be limited.

So, either you drop downfunnel straightaway, like ShopClickDrive, and the customer is only looking at one dealer’s inventory, or you run the risk of promoting something that a specific dealer doesn’t have.

Another conundrum involves the display of pricing online.  Dealers have gotten used to the idea of disclosing MSRP for vehicles, and maybe finance rates, but there is still resistance to online MSRP for products.

I don’t need to tell you how to handle the Morris Motors dealer council, but you might want to assert a division of labor.  Your site is higher in the purchase funnel, where 22% of new car buyers will start their journey, and serving a different purpose.  Now let’s consider the six canonical tasks:

Six Key Tasks for Digital Retail

  • Choose a vehicle – The customer is not choosing a specific vehicle from inventory, but a generic new vehicle by model and trim, or a build vehicle. This is also the time to upsell accessories.
  • Price the vehicle – Using MSRP simplifies the design, but it also impairs accuracy. If the price changes, the dealer may recalculate the deal with his own desking system.
  • Price protection products – Show products before structuring the deal, because they will be financed, and you don’t want the customer fixed on a payment that doesn’t include products.
  • Value the trade – In this scenario, I would recommend a simple KBB lookup with the customer choosing “good” condition from a list, assuming that it will be revised in the dealership anyway.
  • Structure the deal – The goal here is basically to choose lease or retail and promote your offerings, plus any incentives. Unlike the dealer’s desking system, you don’t need to be penny perfect.
  • Organize financing – Obviously, you want first crack at the credit apps, and then you need an interface so you can feed the result into your dealer’s credit system. Send your declines, too.

Lastly, the customer will save the deal and transmit it to their chosen dealer.  It is really more of a “lead” than a deal, at this point, and you have a “lite” version of the digital storefronts we have been discussing.  I toss out the interface thing lightly, because this is my specialty, but you will have to choose whether to work with Route One, VinSolutions, Dealer Socket, etc.  Back to the dealer council…

What is a Digital Storefront?

A digital storefront is a complete car buying experience that can be bolted onto the dealer’s existing web site, and integrated with the dealer’s instore process.  It must support all six of the canonical car-buying tasks:

  1. Choose a vehicle
  2. Price the vehicle
  3. Price protection products
  4. Value the trade
  5. Structure the deal
  6. Organize financing

This is not always a linear process, as I explained in Workflow for Online Car Buying, and not all customers will use the full process, as Andrew Tai explains in this video, but the storefront must support whichever tasks the customer chooses.  Details about the six tasks are given here and here.

… delivering an omnichannel experience that is unmatched and, we believe, will be the future of car buying – Bill Nash

When you think of a good online process, like the CarMax omnichannel sales experience, these tasks are a native part of the web site.  Dealers that don’t happen to be CarMax can offer an online process by bolting a storefront onto their existing web site.

As far as I can tell, this innovation is due to Roadster, but they are no longer alone.  Roadster’s Express Storefront went up at Longo Toyota two years ago.  TagRail, Modal, and Moto also compete in this space.  TagRail and Modal both brand their offerings as “digital checkout.”

By “bolted on,” I mean to include the various techniques used to move the customer from the dealer’s web site into the online buying process.  Modal is actually named for a programming technique, the modal window, and Roadster uses a link.

The transition, however, must not look like it’s bolted on.  Roadster shows a good example, here, of preserving the dealer’s original site design.  I can tell it’s Roadster by looking at it, and programmers will notice the “express” subdomain, but this is a seamless transition for the customer.

Also seamless should be the transition across platforms and into the dealership, an experience known as “omnichannel.”  Think of a credit plugin like Auto-Fi.  It allows the customer to apply for credit on the dealer’s web site, and also updates Route One in the dealership.  You never want to redo a task the customer has already done online.

For a storefront there are multiple potential integration points – inventory, CRM, desking, menu, and credit.  The customer may start a deal on the web and then walk in to finish it, or vice-versa.  They may engage the storefront on a tablet or kiosk in the dealership, and finish it at home.  The goal is to support all six tasks wherever the customer chooses to do them.

Caching the Rate Response

Every so often, I am asked to write on a specialist topic for F&I technology, like surcharge processing, term bumps, or credit life math.  Today’s topic is well known in dealer system software, but bears repeating for the new generation of digital retailers.  This is the problem of how long it takes to receive rates for protection products from the provider’s web service, also known as “latency.”

The good news is that all providers today expose their rates via web service, so they’re always up to date and tailored to the current deal.  It wasn’t always thus.  We once had to scan reams of paper rate guides, and walk ten miles in the snow.  The bad news is that the web rating call can take several seconds to run.

A savvy rate response already has Squish VIN in it, so you just smack the whole thing into Mongo and you’re good to go. 

In the typical scenario, a menu system calls the provider’s web service directly, passing the VIN and the dealer number.  The dealer number is required because product pricing and selection may vary with the dealer.  This may not be the case for digital retail.  You may have a standardized slate of products (or just one product) with a mandatory fixed retail price, and not care about dealer-specific costs and packs.

You still have to pass the VIN, in any case, because most products are risk-rated by model.  Then you wait.  At MenuVantage, we set the timeout for twenty seconds.  If a provider couldn’t respond within twenty seconds, they couldn’t be on the menu.  Digital retail, of course, requires a much faster response.

The rate response for an old-school SOAP call, returning all products for a single model, is about 500 KB, or 10,000 lines of XML.  I have seen them exceed one megabyte (you know who you are).  A well-done web service can transmit the rate response in about one second, and then another second or so for the integration hub.

Most menu systems do not interface directly with the provider.  They go through a central hub like PEN or F&I Express.  These are the main ones (full disclosure: both are clients) but there are others, and a slow rate hub can add seconds of latency.  Digital retail is more likely to be using REST and requesting a specific product.  The biggest product is a service contract, weighing in around 2,000 lines of JSON or 100 KB.

Ideally, all networks and services would be fast, and you would always send the request.  “The network is the computer.”  On the other hand, maybe you ought to cache the rate response.  To do this, simply save each response in a database, keyed by dealer number and Squish VIN.

If you’re in the “don’t care about dealer” scenario described above, then omit the dealer number.  If you expect to rate specific products, as opposed to the menu scenario, then take apart the response according to its (provider-specific) product segmentation.  A savvy rate response already has Squish VIN in it, so you just smack the whole thing into Mongo and you’re good to go.

The point to Squish VIN is that, of the 17 characters, only ten really matter.  The first eight identify the model and trim, and the tenth position encodes the model year.  This is what the provider uses to risk-rate by VIN.

Common practice for digital retail is to pull an inventory list and rate every vehicle on the lot.  That’s some redundant rate requests.  A dealer might have 500 cars on the lot, but only seventy unique VIN patterns.  Even if you’re compulsive about stale cache, and you want to rate every night, this is still a sevenfold improvement.

So, the procedure is: every time you want to rate, either in batch or on demand, go first to the cache.  If there is no matching Squish VIN in the cache, only then must you take the hit for a live rate request.

Menu systems generally do not do the lot-scan thing.  This seems to be new with digital retail.  Generally, we would just expire the cache at midnight and start rebuilding with the next day’s deals.  The first Cherokee takes a hit, and then the first Wrangler, and after that you’re rating Cherokees and Wranglers all day long from cache.

Also new with digital retail are various use cases that don’t require a dealer number.  This vastly improves the efficiency of the cache.  Instead of seventy VIN patterns per dealer, you might have seventy for the whole country.

Workflow for Online Car Buying

A few years ago, I published a precedence diagram for the key operations of online car buying.  I was arguing against a linear process, and calling attention to some deadlocks.  Since then, I have been following the industry’s experiments with new process models, and coming to realize that these deadlocks are the great, unanalyzed, obstacle to process reform.

Practices that seem unfair, deceptive, or abusive may actually be crude attempts to solve the deadlock problem.

One example of a deadlock is that you can’t quote an accurate payment until you know the buy rate, and for that you need to submit a credit application.  This is usually solved by iteration.  You do a pre-approval or quote the floor rate, and then change it later.

Likewise, you can’t price protection products until you know the vehicle, but the customer wants to shop by payment.  Protection products are also priced by term, and you don’t know the desired term until you finish structuring the deal.

In fact, even the customer’s choice of vehicle depends on the monthly payment, which is downstream of everything else.  Virtually the only operation that’s not blocked by another operation is valuing the trade.

Like an interlocking puzzle, “we don’t know anything until we know everything.”  Choosing any one item to lock first, without iteration, will result in a suboptimal deal – buying too much car, for too long a term, or overlooking the protection products.

Practices that seem unfair, deceptive, or abusive may actually be crude attempts to solve the deadlock problem.  For instance, quoting a payment with some leg in it, or goal-seeking the full approval amount.

Can you see how this ties into current debates about the hybrid sales model?  F&I presents a menu with a six-month term bump, which might not be optimal, just to compensate for too tight a payment from the desk.

Fortunately, in the world of online car buying, the customer is free to resolve deadlocks through iteration.  This means:

  1. Set up the deal one way
  2. Change any feature, like the term
  3. The change “cascades,” undoing other features
  4. Revisit those other features
  5. Repeat until all features look good together

The in-store process does not support iteration well, and probably never will, but an online process can.  All you need is the well-known concept of a “dirty” flag, to keep track of the cascading changes, along with navigation and a completeness gauge to guide the customer through steps #4 and 5.

You could analyze step #3 at the level of a dozen individual features.  I made that chart, too, but I believe it’s more useful to collect them into the canonical five pages shown here.

By the way, I have previously described the products page in some detail, along with the analytics to drive it.  Discussion of the “random survey question” is here.  Today’s diagram contemplates a mobile app, as do my recent posts, but the same approach will work for a web site.