NEW YORK – The ability to do car deals 100% online is about a year away, says Cox Automotive Chief Operating Officer Mark O’Neil, who urges dealers to board the digital train today.

It’s a matter of giving customers what they want – or else, he tells WardsAuto. “When customers want something, they always get it.

“Fundamentally, the consumer has learned to engage digitally in every other retail category: shoes, pizza, mortgages, electronics, books; pick any category. But the auto industry has held back in letting them do it.

“My message is: Now’s the time to embrace digital retailing. If the industry doesn’t, someone will create a disruptive technology that will put the current dealer or manufacturer at risk.”

Consumers spend too much time on activities that are not a fun part of the car-buying process, he says, going down the list of available digital tools auto retailing can use to expedite car buying.

Before his speech, “Connected Retail: Deals in the Digital Age,” at the 2017 Automotive Forum here, O’Neil speaks with WardsAuto.

WardsAuto: You talk of the need for dealers to embrace digital. They might say they already have.

O’Neil: They might. But when you look at the data – we look at how enabled websites are to transact electronically – they are woefully under delivering.

There are dealers who are getting comfortable with things such as customers valuing their trade-ins online.

And you see in financing that some dealers have calculators on their sites. But you need to get beyond that. Give the consumer pre-approved financing with a name bank. Not, “Come in, and we’ll get you financed.” That’s not the transparent, completed process.

One of the advantages of embracing digital retailing is the consumer does half the work. That reduces your cost structure as a dealer. By the way, the customers are happy doing that work. It’s more convenient for them, too.

WardsAuto: It’s not a bear hug, but dealers and OEMs have embraced aspects of using the Internet to sell cars.

O’Neil: Everyone has embraced using digital for merchandising and increasing brand awareness. The industry has done a terrific job of letting customers use the Internet to research, shop and get pricing. But not, “OK, now I want to buy it.” That’s a huge leap. The dealers who enable that will thrive.

The success behind Tesla is as much about the customer’s digital buying experience as about the car itself. It’s a very self-directed process.

WardsAuto: What’s left to be done before the full deal can be done online?

O’Neil: All the pieces, absent one, now exist. That missing piece is the secured, legally binding contract. But we’re getting real close to that.

The four tools that are available online are getting a real payment, getting pre-approved financing, seeing an F&I presentation (and selecting products that fit needs) and getting an offer on a trade. By embracing those four, you’re 80% of the way there.

Again, other businesses fully embrace digital. Domino’s Pizza today really is a technology company delivering pizza.

WardsAuto: Will dealers become technology companies delivering cars?

O’Neil: If they do not embrace digital retailing, they’ll be disrupted. The beauty of digital retailing is it’s a win-win.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com