An increasing number of new-car dealers have shifted to online quotes, sales and deals, but the industry is divided over how much the trend will continue once lockdowns are lifted.
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Ford Australia does not believe there will be a permanent shift to online sales for the majority of new car purchases following the COVID-19 pandemic – despite Ford representatives in Detroit forecasting the change will become more permanent.

The car industry globally has had to adopt contactless sales between staff and customers, to reduce infection rates during the coronavirus crisis, however Ford's US sales chief Mark Laneve told Reuters he believes online sales will continue after the virus has been contained.

“Good dealers have been doing remote delivery for the last 20 years, but it was maybe one a week. Now they’re doing almost every delivery that way,” Laneve told Reuters.

“[COVID-19] has just turbo-charged the adoption of those (online) processes by both customers and the dealers. To be honest, I think a big chunk of that stays with us even when we’re through the crisis.”

However, Ford Australia believes there will still be a major role for dealerships on the other side of COVID-19, citing stages of the car-buying process that online sales cannot replace.

“While customers carry out the majority of their research into a new vehicle purchase well before stepping into a showroom, the final decision still isn’t made until they (test drive) the vehicle,” a Ford Australia spokesperson told CarAdvice. “For that reason, we don’t see a permanent shift to online sales just yet.”

The local arm of Ford instead says it plans to maintain a structure that reinforces its dealer network while also adopting online methods.

“We are increasingly seeing that customers are prepared to transact online," the Ford spokesperson said. "The distinction for Ford is that we don’t intend to sell directly to the consumer.

“We are working to develop a consistent online experience across our dealer stores, so that a customer would shop as they do today by selecting their preferred dealer, then their vehicle, before completing the transaction online supported by virtual technology.”

The Australian Automotive Dealers Association (AADA) also shares Ford Australia’s views on the future of online car sales in Australia.

“Dealers are making use of the online channel to overcome some of the challenges posed by COVID-19,” the AADA told CarAdvice.

“This experience may well lead to a greater proportion of sales being completed online once the restrictions are lifted. However, buying a car is different to most consumer goods and research suggests the majority of consumers still want to conduct test drives and complete the transaction in the dealership.

“[The AADA] believes there are still many consumers who just do not feel comfortable buying a vehicle without completing part of the transaction at the dealership.

“The proportion of consumers willing to buy exclusively online may increase, but for now [the AADA] believes the dealership is an important part of the car buying process.”

Earlier this month, Ford announced it would look to resume vehicle production in US plants with processes learnt during its production of medical equipment.