This is getting old.

A short history of the Internet, so far, as it relates to the retail automotive world.

This isn’t about politics.  What this is about is getting old and in the way.

Nor is this about Newt Gingrich, particularly, or phones, although smart phones were ostensibly the topic of this video-turned-Internet-meme, posted a lifetime,  i.e. 11 days, ago.  And smart phones are currently the biggest catalyst of change in the retail automotive world.  But this is not about smart phones.

In my chosen profession online auto marketing, business practices, as they relate to technology, need to be learned, unlearned and relearned at an impressive rate.  Continual changes of every kind, especially technology changes, drive rapid change in customer behaviors.  Not unlike the fast streaking comet-like trajectory of these kind of virtual water cooler conversation starters, such as the former national opinion leader above and his amazing lack of knowledge.

Case in point, most car dealerships discovered some time, maybe 10-15 years ago, that a key buying segment researched, shopped and bought via newly created “Internet” marketing channels; shopping online also meant you were  rejecting the traditional car-buying experience.

Not yet certain how many, or what share of, customers were “Internet shoppers,” dealerships tended to staff up this function with: a.) self-directed sales savvy individuals who thrived in communicating in the ways we communicate online, with skills that seemed to come more or less naturally, or: b.) misfits struggling in the sales force who showed great facility for unpacking and hooking up the dealerships’ computers and networking cables.

And those who ran the dealerships didn’t typically pay it much mind at first until they saw some of their counterparts knocking the cover off the ball, thanks to some gifted individuals in category a.

Category a. tended to profile younger, but not always so, and were more often than not a “new breed,” filling the ranks of car dealerships for the first time, while category b. was reserved for more traditional tinkerers, hobbyists and other retirees who often found their second careers inside car dealerships and who, in an earlier time, would likely have been sent off to the side to handle inventory trades.

Soon enough (i.e. three or four years into this sea change) dealer principals began to acknowledge that upwards of 60-70-80% or higher of all customers were researching online if not shopping and contacting their dealerships directly using tools of the Internet, and that significant investments in these tools of technology, along the major shifts in marketing and merchandising dollars spent, along with micromanagement-like control over people and processes were well-warranted.

Are you with me?

This is 40.  It’s the new 50.

I finally got around to seeing the Judd Apatow mid-life-crisis dramedy This is 40 this past weekend.  Through the eyes of a well-fed and nevertheless uncomfortable couple, I watched as each partner comes to terms with their lives not turning out as planned.  I was particularly interested in the story line of Paul Rudd’s character Pete who hitched his wagon to the dying record industry, carving an unwanted niche in the revival of 70s/80s/90s artists like Graham Parker, The Pixies and Ryan Adams, great artists who never quite got their due the first time around.  Rudd’s character’s miscalculations in the music business which long ago passed him by proved cringe-worthy, as did the realization that he was seemingly lost at the relatively young age of 40.  If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.  And Pete thinks he is forward-thinking.

Graham Parker, who’s a lot closer to Newt Gingrich’s age, ends up schooling Pete on the realities of the music business, enabling us at home watching this minor train wreck (great movie though) to feel a lot better about things.  Parker knows one key is maintaining a small nut to crack, so just selling one song to Glee makes his year, or as Willie Sutton once said, that’s where the money is.  Don’t worry about Graham Parker, Pete.  He’s doing alright.  Worry about yourself.

As time compresses, I imagine I can make a fair comparison to my industry, in that there must be Pete’s counterparts in the car business, fond of the first Internet age, holding onto their “Internet departments,” wondering why there are Internet customers who contact you online and some that don’t.  There are Internet shoppers who contact the dealership using the latest, greatest Internet tool a.k.a the smart phone to do what’s most immediate — plus, filling out static forms doesn’t work so well on the smart phone touch screen.  And there are shoppers who just get a great vibe visiting the web and feel, based on the way the store is marketed and merchandised online, comfortable about walking into the bricks and mortar facility, no appointment-setting ritual needed, ready to roll.  IRL.

All of which makes me think that an “Internet department” in this day and age is kind of quaint at best, and old-school thinking at worst should the Internet shopper walk in unaided only to find that the rest of the sales floor does not conduct business like it appears to be conducted online.  Or should the “Internet department” be grossly understaffed and the rest of the sales force untrained in the ways of today’s shoppers, it’s kind of an outdated concept.

One thing that hasn’t changed.  All things Internet are changing at a rapid pace.  Which makes the argument for staying flexible and adapting to reality irresistible.  There’s a name for that, but it escapes me at the moment.

by Joshua Michael Friedman

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