Car buying pivots from the showroom to digital with Benzel-Busch
Buying a car is emotional. Browsing the sprawling lots, feeling the power of the engine on a test drive, haggling with salespeople back and forth—it’s a hands-on experience that can delight or intimidate, depending on your negotiation skills.
But when showrooms across the country are shuttered in the face of a pandemic, purchasing a new car becomes a different experience entirely.
In February, when early rumblings of the COVID-19 crisis were just emerging in the United States, Joseph A. Agresta, Jr., president of Benzel-Busch Motor Car Corporation, met with his dealership’s agency, Looney Advertising, to discuss next steps in the event of a worst-case scenario.
“We were already starting to make changes to our operations as early as late February,” Agresta said during the Ad Age Next: Retail virtual event on Wednesday.
“While we were putting contingency plans in place, we were having a lot of conversations with Looney and our team there just about what was happening, what we were seeing and what we were preparing to do.”
Benzel-Busch, which operates a handful of Audi and Mercedes-Benz dealerships in New York and New Jersey, decided to shift to “Express Car Buying,” a 100 percent virtual retail experience that allows consumers to select, experience and finance their new car online before having delivered to their door.
When the severity of the pandemic increased, Benzel-Busch and many other U.S. dealers embraced contactless car buying trends that were once reserved for online-only auto retailers like Carvana, which has offered virtual vehicle tours and home delivery for years.
Virtual test drives
To put customers at ease while maintaining elements of the normal car buying process, Agresta implemented “virtual test drives,” in which dealership employees would either film a video of themselves getting behind the wheel or video call customers while taking the car for a spin. They also had live representatives available over the phone to answer questions about the vehicles and instituted a buy-back guarantee should customers change their mind.
But no matter how seamless or contactless Benzel-Busch could make the traditional car buying process, purchases of new vehicles were inevitably going to slow during the pandemic. That’s when Looney Advertising rethought the dealer’s marketing strategy.
“We really leveraged [Benzel-Busch’s] core assets. A lot of dealerships make the mistake of trying to assume the identity of the brands they’re selling. But obviously when you buy a car from a company, there’s a lot more things involved in terms of your trust in the dealership, and how they’ll service you during the lifetime of your car,” said Sean Looney, CEO and co-founder of his namesake agency.
“We scaled back on some out-of-home, we invested in television, we invested heavily in social,” all while introducing new terms to consumers such as “360º Sanitize,” a premium disinfecting procedure Benzel-Busch offers for the interiors of its vehicles, Looney added.
Post-pandemic, Agresta said he fully expects that car buying will be increasingly handled online out of sheer convenience—though he doubts every aspect of the process will be handled digitally.
“The best part of the car buying experience is the test drive. And you don’t want to give that part of the buying process up.”