Public Dealership Groups: Small In Number, Huge In Clout

As customers have grown to expect a digital shopping and buying experience, each of the publics has launched or plans to introduce a digital retailing tool on their dealership websites, either developed in-house or obtained from a vendor.

Some of their commitments to innovation go beyond vehicle sales and beyond their companies. For example, AutoNation in 2017 began working with Waymo, Google's self-driving car unit. The retailer signed a multiyear agreement to provide maintenance and repairs for Waymo's fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrids. AutoNation also offers some customers a ride in a Waymo vehicle instead of a loaner during service appointments.

AutoNation last year invested $50 million in Vroom Inc., an online used-vehicle retailer. The investment could lead to a strategic partnership but is only an investment for now, Jackson said at the time.

Lithia, meanwhile, invested in an online used-vehicle retailer last year, becoming the largest shareholder of Shift Technologies in San Francisco. Lithia's investment was part of a strategic partnership that provides the capital Shift needs to expand nationwide and uses Lithia's physical infrastructure to supplement Shift's storage areas.

Penske has invested in Ridecell and Fair.com to participate in the future of mobility, and it plans to launch digital retailing sites in the United Kingdom and at its used-vehicle outlet in the U.S. this year.

CarMax also has invested heavily in digital retailing with an omnichannel car-buying process it launched in Atlanta this year. Omnichannel typically describes a seamless buying experience, whether consumers are shopping from their computer, mobile device or in the store. By February, CarMax says, most customers will be able to buy from home, in the store or through a combination of both.

As part of the omnichannel experience, CarMax next year plans to open three Customer Experience Centers, where consultants will assist buyers by phone or online with shopping and financing, and those buyers can get their vehicle at a nearby store or opt for home delivery.

Large private groups have been auto retailing trailblazers as well. For example, groups such as Holman Automotive Group in Mount Laurel, N.J., and Flow Automotive Cos. in Winston-Salem, N.C., have experimented with vehicle subscription programs. And others, such as Walser Automotive Group in Minneapolis, eliminated F&I managers in favor of a hybrid sales-F&I process.

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