Changing the way people buy and sell cars

AutoNation, a Fortune 500 company, is the largest retailer of new and used cars in the U.S. It has revenues of $20+ billion and more than 300 dealerships spread across 19 states. It’s big. So when its CEO says he’s going to transform the automotive retail market, people sit up and listen.

That’s exactly what happened at the end of 2014 when Michael J. Jackson, AutoNation’s CEO, announced that by Christmas his company would be the first to allow consumers to buy a car starting online. While it was a headline-grabbing statement, it was only ever one part of his ultimate ambition.

Mr. Jackson realized that the world of car retailing was changing, with new, agile competitors putting digital experiences at the heart of their offers. Sure, you can search for cars online today but you generally can’t get any further than typing in your phone number and waiting for a callback. You’re no more than a lead for a salesperson.

2015 is the year we do this – every single bit of our business had better be ready.
Michael J. Jackson AutoNation CEO

He decided this had to change. He wanted his customers to be able to search for a car, book a test drive, put down a deposit, organize finances, sell their old car if needed and fill out everything necessary to take ownership – all online, if they wanted. But he also knew that the chance of someone wanting to do all of this online was slim. People want to see a car in the flesh, kick its tires, take a test drive and talk to an expert.

So the real goal wasn’t to take car buying online – it was to make the digital experience work in perfect harmony with the dealership experience. This way, the process for buying or selling was quicker and simpler for a customer, and the dealerships were better equipped with information about their customers. The headline-grabbing announcement was his way of saying to the company, “2015 is the year we do this – every single bit of our business had better be ready.”


The first stage of our approach was an intensive two-day workshop with the client. With a project of this scale, it was really important to make sure we focused on the areas that would have the greatest impact. We agreed these would be:

  • Trade-in or buy my car
  • Custom payment calculator
  • Credit application and lender approval
  • Maintenance and customer care

Each of these areas became a workstream in its own right with a team made up of Fjord, Accenture and client stakeholders, working together and sharing with a wider audience when possible. Our role was to help ensure the experience was as smooth and customer-focused as possible – and took into account the importance of mobile phones and tablets to today’s shopping experience.

As we worked through each stream, it became increasingly clear that the relationship between the online and the offline journeys (i.e. the digital experience and the in-store) was critical. If this was to be successful, a customer and the AutoNation sales teams needed some way of understanding where they were in the sales process, whether they were at home or standing in a dealership – particularly as a large purchase such as this could take someone months to complete, from first research through to actual transaction.

Fjord always knew some form of dashboard would be necessary, but it quickly became a central part of the project. It became the space where a customer could keep all the information he or she needed at all times, as well as offering functions such as organizing test drives and reserving a car. And it gave the sales teams valuable information about the people walking into their dealership – from the sort of car they wanted to how long they’d been looking. This dashboard was really the key to bringing the dealerships into the process and, for the first time, mirroring the way people actually shop for a car.

Once we aligned on the importance of the dashboard, it became a workstream in its own right and the team continued to move through key processes for service design: discover, describe, design, develop. Our remit for each workstream embodied a mix of in-store and online research activities along with our foundational design experience, leading to concepts that informed the creation of high-level wireframes. The AutoNation internal team of visual designers used this foundation to create final digital experiences, ultimately brought to life by a combined Accenture and client development team. It is the nature of this coexistence and collaboration between Fjord, Accenture and AutoNation that allowed design realization for each of the respective work streams.

Creating a connected experience for car buyers

We wanted to be able to tie up all the information, activities and touchpoints a customer goes through during the course of buying or selling a car and make the process simpler, quicker and less confusing as a result. And for the dealers, we wanted to be able to give them more information, when and where they needed it, about the customers they’re trying to help.

It’s early days, and the project is still underway, but the initial signs are great. The dealerships love the new dashboard. And the ability to do things like calculate finance on specific vehicles and reserve a car online is already drastically increasing conversion rates from browsers to buyers.

The biggest changes, however, are still to come this year. The work to date has prepared what was quite a traditional bricks and mortar retail business to become one that’s ready to embrace the digital world. This work has paved the way for a fully digital customer journey and made some huge improvements along the way – improvements we think will change the process of car buying for the better, forever.