We’re well over 20 years into the era of e-commerce and more than 10 years into the era of mobile commerce. And still, customers behaviors continue to evolve faster than retailers’ abilities to adapt. Customers are empowered with real-time information, choices and insights on demand. Whether it’s searching for the “best [product] for me,” watching specific types of product review videos on YouTube, asking their voice-activated devices for sports scores and weather or reading consumer reviews, connected consumers are further disrupting online and offline shopping journeys. The question is, what does it take for physical retailers to keep up and win?
Among industries in the throes of modernization, the auto industry is under notable pressure to connect the dots for a digital-first customer with an in-person sales experience. For the most part, customers still have to visit a dealership to get the keys to their new car. Yet, for many dealerships, the connection between the online world and physical stores is often complicated and not a delightful experience for consumers. But these days, by the time a customer visits a dealership, they are far more educated about their intended purchase and also the buying process itself. Dealerships must modernize the digital touchpoints to guide customers along their path, their way.
Connecting the Dots: Modernize the Roads Between Online and Physical Worlds
Gone are the days when a majority of new car customers shopped based on newspaper ads or compared models and prices by visiting local lots. Did you know that 60% of automotive searches come from a mobile device? As a result, new car buyers visit only two dealerships on average before making a purchase  . This means that brands and dealers who seek to become part of the consideration-set, must invest in every stage of the customer journey. Doing so aligns customer intent with desired outcomes at each step. This includes becoming discoverable when the research process begins and then sequencing your messaging based on a potential customer’s previous actions.
While seemingly counterintuitive for any business that relies on human touch at some point in the journey, many digital-savvy dealers are optimizing digital and mobile first engagement for a more personal touch at the time of purchase. When done right, this allows for customers to find everything they need to then visit a local dealership to finalize the deal.
One dealership leading the way is Park Place Lexus in Texas.
I recently read an interesting overview of how Park Place Lexus dealership is modernizing the customer journey by connecting the dots between the online world and their physical store. In a video that shares how the company is modernizing the consumer journey, Park Place CMO Dave Evans explained, “The expectation…of any purchase…is completely different than what it was even two or three years ago.” He continued, “We know that customers want to control their experience. The experience is really what they’re looking for.”
Kennedy Gibson, director of digital marketing for Park Place dealerships, added that they also had to meet new consumer needs. “By the time a customer gets to us, they’re a lot more educated about the buying process, so we have to adjust the car buying experience to match,” she said.
For example, consumers are beginning their journey more and more on their mobile devices. They’re searching for specific results, such as “best SUVs for kids” or “safest SUVs for kids” or “best car for pets.” Then they’re pouring over videos that communicate the likely consumer experience, i.e. walkthroughs that demonstrate vehicle features or explanations as to why this vehicle is the ‘best’ or ‘safest’ as well as other forms of content such as “test drive” and consumer review videos. Once they narrow down their options, they then search for something along the lines of “best [BRAND] dealer near me.” The research continues with consumers avidly exploring videos and reviews of dealers to also gain insight into the in-store experience before setting foot on the lot.
Four Ways to Shift Sales into High Gear
For dealers or any retailer to thrive, they must absolutely study and understand customer intent and behaviors to then align the right technology on the right platforms with the right content and messages. This paves the way for a one-to-one relationship online and offline, encouraging customers to visit the dealership along the way. That’s where, after all, deals are closed and customers take possession of their new cars.
Combining and optimizing digital, mobile and real-world experiences is exactly the approach that Park Place is taking to win.
1) Connect the dots of the customer journey from online to store
To start, Park Place introduced its “Path to Purchase,” an online journey experience that allows customers to complete 80% of the purchase process online. It intuitively walks customers through each step of the purchase journey, from exploration to financing to providing trade-in information. As a result, Park Place Lexus is already seeing 23% growth in purchases that start online and finalize in the dealership.
2) Optimize the mobile journey specifically
Park Place redesigned its mobile site to meet the expectations of mobile customers looking for directions, hours, information, or service on the small screen. Doing so has boosted visibility with the company earning over 15,000 “directions-related” visits per month and 12,000 “click to calls” per month. For those customers who engage with the dealership’s website, Park Place sees a buy rate two times higher than those who only use other auto internet sources.
3) Amplify digital discoverability
Even on mobile, digital search is still critical as it’s where the journey most often begins. According to  , search remains the most commonly used research method when buying a new car. Park Place aggressively focused on shoppers who had recently searched for new cars on mobile devices.
4) Measure customer engagement, which drives growth
True measures of success aren’t just about reaching eyeballs, populating lead forms online and converting them in person. Dealers and retailers can tie marketing directly back to actual business results – you don’t have to rely on proxy or legacy metrics like lead form fills, which people no longer fill out anyway. Rather, you can now track how well your marketing is driving actual footsteps into the dealership. Park Place is measuring tangible outcomes such as store visits, how many people they’re impacting, and then optimizing based on those engagements. Now, one-in-five people that click a paid search ad for Park Place end up visiting one of their dealerships.
CMO Dave Evans, summarized the relationship between online and in-store this way, “Park Place is very passionate about creating relationships…as behavior patterns change.”
This is still a relationship business. You still have to know people to deliver what it is they value. If their behaviors differ from your business models and practices, then it’s up to you, not them, to build bridges of value between your digital and mobile site to your physical address.
 Google Search Data, U.S., April – June, 2017
 Google, KANTAR TNS, Auto Consumer Barometer 2018, U.S., Q3 2018, Base: New car buyers, n = 519
 Google Search Data, U.S., April – June, 2017
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