During the Pandemic, Auto Brands Embrace Digital Platforms and Ecommerce

Cadillac's digital showroom and ecommerce site have tripled new leads

a computer with a car for a mouse
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Key insights:

Carmakers are incorporating at-home delivery into their sales pitches in an effort to keep car buyers interested, a shift expedited by the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions keeping customers away from dealerships.

While none of this marks a seismic shift in the auto purchase journey, the rise in online car shopping could signal the future of the industry.

Cadillac, which operates two different online shopping experiences, saw traffic to its Cadillac Live experience, a digital showroom where consumers can tour vehicles and speak with a expert virtually, jump 67% from February to March and another 15% from March to April. That bump came without further advertising support beyond giving the experience a larger spot on Cadillac’s homepage.

“It’s pretty easy—if we don’t ask for a lot of your personal information right up front, we just ask you what vehicle you want to hear about,” said Marcie Perez, director of integrated marketing and digital innovation at Cadillac.

The average time spent on the showroom is between 8 minutes and 12 minutes, according to Perez. “People are just curious about a new experience,” she added. “No one is doing it quite like this.”

Cadillac’s other online platform is called Shop.Click.Drive. It essentially works as an ecommerce platform where curious buyers can see which of the brand’s cars are available at dealers near them. After digitally filing the necessary paperwork, a Cadillac will appear in their driveway.

“Now that technology is so available to everyone, we’re just trying to figure out how to streamline the process,” Perez said. “Buying a car is very difficult: There are a lot of options, there’s a lot of financing questions. Wherever we can put a human in front and help answer questions for people, we do know it helps the connection with our consumers.”

Although the growth of these programs hasn’t yet translated into sales (there’s roughly a 90-day period between auto buyer interest and a sale), they’ve tripled new vehicle leads. Because of their success, Perez said Cadillac will feature the platforms in its future advertising.

The pandemic has also seen some of the brand’s digitally reluctant dealers join the platform, with 227 dealers joining during the first month of the pandemic. Now, roughly 90% of Cadillac dealers are on the platform.

Other auto brands have seen similar results.

When Hyundai first launched its Shopper Assurance platform, which operates similarly to Cadillac’s, CMO Angela Zepeda said it wasn’t “fully embraced” initially by the brand’s dealers, but that during the pandemic, 100% of dealers had joined up.

“Of course, dealers always want people to come to the dealership,” Zepeda said. “This really forced the conversation of how we get onto digital retailing, and then accelerating that to get to home delivery.”

The actual customer journey of an auto buyer isn’t so simple, so providing these alternative options for not just purchase decisions but learning about the vehicle itself before doing so were imperative.

Most customers don’t know the exact vehicle they want,” said Jeremy Anspach, CEO of PureCars, an automotive digital marketing brand that works with dealerships. “Consumers want to go to the dealer, they want to test drive more than one car, they want to see more than one color in the sunlight. When you’re completely on screen, that’s tough.”

There’s also the matter of market penetration: Consumers might not yet be aware that home delivery options exist. Although ad-spend in the auto industry fell precariously in the depths of the pandemic, spending at the dealer level has since increased. According to an analysis by PureCars, from June 8-14, spending on YouTube was up 20.6%, while Google search rose 8.1%.

“We don’t expect all customers to want to buy online, [but] we want to make it available to whatever varying level that a consumer wants it for,” Perez said.

But trends like home delivery, and even doing most of the research online, may persist long after the pandemic.

“Dealers might have to get used to customers expecting to deliver to prospective drivers’ homes,” said Anspach, noting that dealers, however entrepreneurial, would have scoffed at the idea before.

“Today,” he added, “they would say, ‘What’s the address?’”

@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.