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When Ecommerce Isn’t Ecommerce


The news that Tesla’s Model 3 was the best selling car in the UK in April has to be taken in context. Of course, the car market is dealing with unprecedented restrictions at present and total of sales of just 4,321 units in April were down 97% vs the same period in 2019. And a boat load of them arrived just before lockdown!

The fact remains that there can be little doubt that Tesla’s genuine, end to end online sales proposition had a part to play in that performance. Yet Tesla isn’t the only manufacturer in the UK that claims to offer online sales – indeed several have had their own ‘ecommerce’ solutions live in the UK for quite some time.

The problem is that there is a difference between claiming to sell online and actually doing it. And just because you have an online presence it doesn’t mean it’s an ecommerce presence. Many of the sites have nice design and imagery, but in many cases that’s because they are all about the ‘brand’ and less about ‘purchase’. There’s a distinct difference and to highlight it, let’s look at things from a consumer perspective.

“Why am I here in the first place?”

There is an increasing amount of research that suggests many car buyers are unhappy with the traditional process of buying a car. Configuration is complex, price negotiation can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking, and sales of insurances and ‘add-on’ products can feel pressured and unwanted.

So, there’s a fair chance that the main reason a consumer visits an ‘online sales’ site in the first place is because they want to avoid that very experience. Yet, in the vast majority of cases, the online sales sites run by manufacturers in the UK are in fact nothing more than lead generation tools designed to send the customer straight back into the process they are trying to avoid. The fact is that it is almost impossible to complete the purchase of a car from a manufacturer website completely remotely.

How can that be?! Some manufacturers ask its visitors to ‘select a retailer’ as the very first step of its ‘online sales’ site. What incentive does the consumer who is looking for a genuine online sales experience have to continue?

And if they do continue, will they be offered the same vehicle and same price they are quoted online…? Which other industry does that?

“I am paying a lot of money here, so I expect a service to match”

Let’s just think for a second about our own online buying habits. Ask yourself how many times you have been shopping for an item costing around £50 online? You may well have come across a website that offers the same product for £40. You click on the link, but the site looks unreliable, is poorly designed or asks for too many personal details too early in the process. It might be cheaper, but the chances are you that you won’t proceed with the purchase.

Your website is like a shop window. If you walk past a shop window and it looks a mess, you won’t walk in.

With online automotive retailing, we are asking customers to part with thousands of pounds, either immediately or over a number of years. So, following the same logic as above, surely the online experience has to be absolutely leading edge. Simple, adaptable, transparent and convenient.

Yet many of the online manufacturer websites are full of dead ends or start with fundamental ecommerce ‘no-no’s’, such as asking the user to register and give up personal data as the first step in the journey. Why would we expect consumers to behave differently online and buck known ecommerce best practice trends, just because it’s a car they are interested in?

“If I’m giving you my data, there has to be a reward…”

Again, let’s think about our own shopping habits. Many of us shop for groceries online. You have to register, but there are benefits to doing so. Very often, Tesco, for example, will know what you need to buy before you do! You can base your weekly or monthly shop based on your previous purchases. The whole process is designed to get you through the checkout easily, all made possible by simple use of customer data.

How many of us have bought from Amazon because they’ve suggested an item ‘you might like’ based on your purchase history? How many of us are inspired to consider a purchase because we’ve seen that ‘customers who bought this also bought this’? These are small rewards in return for use of your personal data, but these are ecommerce basics that the automotive industry seems to ignore.

None of the current UK manufacturer online sales sites offer anything like this use of consumer data. What if you signed in and the manufacturer knew you had purchased several vehicles and services from them previously? How would that then affect the online sales process? Ask yourself, should a customer on their third or fourth vehicle from a brand have to go through the exact same linear process that a new customer does? How would you feel if you logged in to Amazon tomorrow and they’d stopped using all of your previous purchase data to enhance your experience?

Manufacturers have access to all of this data, yet for some reason do not use it for the benefit of themselves and the customer. I’d argue that if a manufacturer was thinking of piloting an online sales tool today, recognising returning customers (who are far less likely to need a test drive) should be absolutely at the top of their list. Consumers have to be rewarded for handing over their data.

“All of this means that there is a great opportunity for our industry”

The point of this article isn’t to point fingers and criticise. Indeed, hats off to those manufacturers who have had a go and have got something out there and live. They will, if nothing else, be learning every day from the data they are gathering. But it’s not valuable ecommerce insight that they will be gathering, because that’s not what they’re actually offering.

The point is that there is a huge opportunity for the industry now to really embrace ‘true’ ecommerce and more importantly than that, true omni-channel customer experiences. Even with retailers opening again, it’s likely that the demand for a true end to end ecommerce experience has never been higher than the coming months. The products are incredible. If we can truly learn from the benchmarks and practices set by digital leaders across the retail sector, and we start putting the customer truly at the heart of the solution, who knows what can be achieved?

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