Provider Support for Digital Retail

A couple of press releases caught my attention last week.  The first one was APCO Acquires Strategic Diversified.  So, what’s new about that?  F&I providers have been acquiring agencies ongoingly, in parallel with consolidation among car dealers.  What caught my attention was this, from CEO Rob Volatile, “the additional resources APCO will provide, particularly in digital retailing, will help our dealers thrive in the changing times ahead.”

“The additional resources APCO will provide, particularly in digital retailing, will help our dealers thrive in the changing times ahead.” 

By now, everyone understands that small dealer groups don’t have the resources to compete effectively in digital retail.  This includes even the mighty Larry Miller group.  As CEO Steve Starks said of the Asbury sale, “we had grown the business about as large as we could without having an over-the-top digital retail strategy.”

Product providers, agents, and finance sources must have value-enhancing digital skills – which brings me to the second press release, Assurant Unveils Omnichannel Sales Optimization Suite.  This, again, is not new.  All providers have some kind of digital outreach program.  I served on the digital retail team at Safe-Guard.  In addition to my main job of growing the API business, we provided research, content, and coaching to our clients – not unlike Assurant’s offering.

What caught my attention was the high-profile announcement including, as McKinsey recommends, senior leadership for digital transformation.  This same SVP, Martin Jenns, is quoted here in an Automotive News roundup.

How F&I Providers Can Support Digital Retail

So, what can a product provider do to support “omnichannel sales optimization?”  I asked some of my pals in digital retail.  Definitely the training and API capabilities, plus digital content.  Cited as leaders were Assurant and JM&A.

“Providers should pay specific attention to how their products will present on a digital retail platform.”

The best advice came from AutoFi’s Matt Orlando, who told me, “providers should pay specific attention to how their products will present on a digital retail platform.”  That is, instead of the (completely different) experience on a portal or a menu.

For example, a service contract may have more than one hundred combinations of coverage, term, deductible, and other options.  That doesn’t work for an online consumer.  Providers should apply some analytics, Matt said, and transmit only the most-likely rates.

Short, snappy videos are the preferred digital content.  Digital retail vendors will generally set these up on request although, in my experience, it’s better if the provider can transmit the latest content via API and in various formats.  See my REST Primer for F&I.

  • White papers – Do some research, find success stories, and write informative long-form articles. Also, promotional content like newsletters, roadmaps, infographics, and this eBook.
  • Coaching – For your non-reading clients, be prepared with live-delivery content – and people.
  • API capabilities – Invest in advanced API capabilities like real-time analytics and digital content. Push the envelope of what digital retail can present.
  • Digital content – Produce digital content as video, image, and rich text (not HTML) for each level of your product hierarchy.
  • Resource center – Make all of this available to your clients using a purpose-built microsite – and people.

I remember back when the old-timers used to say that protection products “are not bought, they’re sold.”  Well, digital F&I results now exceed those in-store, with some platforms reliably above 2.0 product index.

In the midst of an inventory shortage, dealers must sell more product on fewer vehicles – and product providers must be part of the solution.

Digital Retail Consolidation

There has been a wave of buyouts and tie-ups lately, and so it is time to reexamine the competitive landscape.  We start by fleshing out the model I described in DR and Dealer Websites.  This is a commerce-oriented model, placing software products along the customer journey.

Looking at the three big DMS vendors, we see Roadster and Gubagoo filling important gaps for CDK and Reynolds.  Cox has long been in this space, now with Accelerate, and MMD before that.  Cox is the only one of this group to own a listing platform, Autotrader.

Last year, CDK sold its dealer marketing operation to Ansira, including the dealer site business formerly known as Cobalt.  The new entity, Sincro, now has a tie-up with Tekion.  As far as I know, this is indeed the first real-time interface from website to DMS.  I have worked with clients on other DMS interfaces, but none that cross the Buy Now boundary.

In the dealership, I list only the DMS, although the model could be extended to break out other point-of-sale systems.  Note that CDK and Dealertrack no longer have their own menu systems.  Both are now offering Darwin under license.  To round out the DR theme, I include TrueCar’s tie up with AutoFi, and Fox Dealer’s acquisition of TagRail.

So far, so typical.  Everybody wants a DR partner, and the big vendors have always acquired the innovative upstarts.  But now, we discover a new theme. CDK paid a lot of money for Roadster, $360 million, to plug a gap in its product line.  Why did J.D. Power, not a software vendor, pay even more for Darwin?

Digital Retail Acquisitions are Big Data Plays

J.D. Power is primarily a data business.  They own ALG and Autodata.  According to the press release, they are “focused on maximizing the value of our extensive data and analytics assets.”  Darwin, through its powerful DMS interface, has been reading and analyzing sales data for thousands of dealers.

MotoInsight, the Canadian DR company (my profile here) was recently acquired by a unit of Thoma Bravo, which in turn owns J.D. Power.  Seeing a pattern yet?  The Autodata merger is pretty recent, and also mentions analytics.

“In working with Modal, we are leveraging aggregated purchase data and AI to improve conversion.”

Another DR player, Modal, recently teamed up with a data science company called Inmar.  I couldn’t find the commercial terms, but founder Aaron Krane has stepped back.  There’s a new CEO, and a plan to “catapult analytics to the forefront.”

The press release for the recent acquisition of Dealer Socket by Solera, “the preeminent global data intelligence and technology leader” specifically mentions machine learning.  While we’re at it, let’s note that Automotive Mastermind is a unit of IHS Markit, as are Carfax and R.L Polk.

You’ve probably heard that “data is the new oil.” Opinions vary, but I think the metaphor holds up here.  If you study analytics the way I do, it’s easy to see the data resources underlying these transactions.  You can also check out this book, or the usual sources like HBR and Sloan.

Digital Retail is “the engine,” giving customers a self-sufficient buying experience.  This engine is amenable to endless AI-based use cases, from recommenders to NLP chatbots … and AI runs on data.

Dealer Megatrends Part 2 – Fintech

Car dealers today face a growing array of new systems and capabilities.  These are primarily in F&I, thanks to disruptive new entrants in financial technology – fintech, for short.  Mark Rappaport has a nice roundup here, from a lender’s perspective, and I maintain a list on Twitter.

  • AutoFi – Auto finance plug-in for dealer web sites. See Ricart Ford for an example.
  • AutoGravity – Customer obtains financing (via smart phone) before visiting the dealership.
  • Drive – Online car selling, with delivery, from the Drive web site.
  • Honcker – Customer obtains financing (via smart phone) and they deliver the car.
  • Roadster – E-commerce platform for dealers, with full sales capability (as I anticipated here).
  • TrueCar – Customer sets transaction price (via smart phone) before visiting the dealership.

The new entrants blur familiar boundaries in the retail process.  They’re basically lead providers, but all aim to claim a piece of the F&I process.  AutoGravity, for instance, provides a lead already committed to a finance source.  TrueCar provides a lead already committed to a transaction price.  If you’re unfamiliar with the canonical process, see my schematics here and here.

In my previous Megatrends installment, Consolidation, I cited the influence of PE money.  It’s the same with fintech.  AutoGravity, to name one, is backed by $50 million.

The new F&I space is also home to “predictive analytics.”  Automotive Mastermind examines thousands of data points, to produce a single likely-to-buy score.  Similarly, Darwin Automotive can tell you which protection products to pitch.

The technology’s proprietary algorithm crunches thousands of data points, combining DMS information with … social media, financial, product and customer lifecycle information

My specialty is F&I, but it seems pretty clear that predictive analytics has a place in fixed ops as well.  In terms of the earlier article, you can see that consolidators have an edge in evaluating new technology.  Speaking of fixed ops, they’re also better positioned to obtain telematics data.

McKinsey says fintech can help incumbents, not just disrupt them.  That’s why I have focused on technologies a dealer could employ, versus apps like Blinker that are straight threats.  Of course, you have to adopt the technology.  Marguerite Watanabe draws a parallel with the development of credit aggregation systems.

Fintech will induce dealers to adopt an online, customer-driven process.  I see this as an opportunity. On the other hand, those that fail to adapt will be left behind.  This article is aimed at dealers, but the challenge applies equally to lenders, product providers, and software vendors.