How to make a real deal in a virtual world


The internet has changed how Canadians shop for cars, but one of the most important changes that retailers must make isn’t in the virtual world, it’s in the real world — when customers come in to buy — says an executive for a Saskatchewan dealership group.

“There was a time when we wouldn’t let a customer buy a vehicle until he has driven it,” Michael Wyant, chief operating officer of the Saskatoon-based Wyant Group, which operates 15 dealerships in three provinces, including 11 in Saskatchewan.

“If he buys it [without driving it] and comes back a day later, that’s a whole lot of extra work to unwind the deal. 

“Today, it’s all about finding out, in that funnel, how much research the customer has already done.” 

The internet has democratized car buying so much, Wyant said, dealerships must be careful about when they roll out old-style sales techniques. 

“Some customers come in and say they found this F-150 on our website, they’ve driven their buddy’s F-150 and ‘Can I get it for the payments you have listed?’ ” he said. “We can do that transaction in 20 to 30 minutes.” 

Driving many of the online expectations are the experiences consumers have on retailing websites in other industries, said Sean Claessen, executive vice-president of strategy and innovation at Bond Brand Loyalty in Toronto. 

“What we know from experience is consumer expectations are on the rise. If Aldo shoes will let you check inventory on a $100 pair of shoes, fairly or unfairly, car shopping is not immune to that expectation on a $20,000 purchase.” 


Customers also know what competitors are offering, which means dealerships need to refrain from the high-pressure sales techniques of old. So, a customer who comes in looking for a Honda Pilot LX isn’t going to appreciate being pressured to help reduce a dealer’s overstock of EX models, Wyant said. 

“We still have to offer it — ‘Hey, I know you want an LX, but we have this great offer on EX models,’ but if the customer says no, then you drop it. It’s not the customer’s problem that our inventory isn’t where it should be. 

“If you pressure them, you’re going to pressure them right out the door.” 

As for a dealership’s website, Wyant said a plethora of techniques can help the return on the online investment. 

For example, listings of inventory must include authentic photographs of the vehicles listed — not stock images — with accurate descriptions of the price, details and payment possibilities. 


Claessen agrees that transparency in online listings is critical. 

“In an [Google] AdWord world, it’s too easy to squat on fake inventory as clickbait, and customers know that, are suspicious of it and will prioritize sellers who provide clarity and reassurance at every stage of the buying journey,” he said. 

If you’re paying to appear at the top of search engine searches, Wyant said, don’t buy words related to products you don’t sell. 

“It can make the dealer look a little silly,” he said. “Customers searching for an F-150 don’t want to be served up search results for Ram.” 

Wyant said it’s a mistake to think that in today’s online world, such practices will lead to conquest sales. 

“Instead of trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, we focus on the markets we’re in and buying search terms relevant to the products we sell.” 

Practices that mislead consumers, Claessen said, cost dealers sales and profit. 

“Our data show the retail journey is fraught with mismanaged expectations, and many retailers have overemphasized the beginning of that journey at the sacrifice of later aspects that move the customers along the journey, toward greater satisfaction with the brand.” 

Wyant, whose company is privately held, would not disclose sales figures, but he did describe how he quantifies results of his entire marketing strategy. 

When a store misses its target, and it can’t be explained by outside influences such as interest rates or overall market declines, he drills into the data on how visitors used his websites: How long was their visit? 

Did they request a test drive or interact with the live chat function? When a visitor leaves a page on one site to jump to a different site, it could be indicative of the first page’s failure to capture the visitor’s attention. 

At the same time, Wyant said he is making sure the dealership is properly executing the strategy for converting leads into sales. 

It’s important to track these metrics regularly, “rather than get to the end of the month and say, ‘Holy s–t, we’re behind,’ but that’s complicated by the fact no two months are the same. 

“Sometimes, these things don’t show themselves until you’re two or three weeks into a month,” he said. 

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