June 15, 2021

AutoFi marketing VP: Transparency here to stay

After years of resistance, the automotive retail industry is ready for pricing and finance transparency. The change may have been spurred by the coronavirus constraints on physical transactions, yet the industry was already progressing down the path, says Kerri Wise, the new vice president of marketing for AutoFi.

Wise, 44, joined the digital vehicle sales and finance platform late last month from vehicle listings company TrueCar, where she was vice president of communications. Wise launched her automotive career as an analyst at J.D. Power. Last fall, she was named one of Automotive News’ 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry.

In January, AutoFi launched its lending-as-a-service business unit focused on connecting automakers, auto lenders and dealerships through open integration tools.

Wise spoke with Staff Reporter Jackie Charniga on the new direction for the industry, meeting consumer demand and the role of digital sales amid the inventory shortage. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: What are your priorities moving into this role amid such a chaotic time for the industry?

A: There are a lot of digital retailing players out there, and with the pandemic, that has been all the buzz out there in the market. One of my key jobs as the VP of marketing is to really help differentiate AutoFi in the marketplace and to highlight some of the unique value propositions. Throughout my career, I’ve worked at companies that have largely focused on discovery when it comes to the online shopping experience, whether it be Edmunds in terms of vehicle discovery or TrueCar in terms of price discovery. And what I’m really excited about at AutoFi is they really enable deal discovery through their integrated financing platform. I think there’s a lot of confusion in the market about what differentiates digital retailing players. Financing is a critical and integral piece to a transaction.

The pandemic accelerated digital retailing adoption in the industry, even though dealerships have had access to the technology for a while. What hindered adoption before?

Financing was kind of considered the holy grail in terms of a profit center for many dealers. And there was hesitancy to put information out there. The tactic was to get them in. That was the best way to interact with the customers in the F&I room. There was a lot of pushback. And I think the pandemic forced everyone, not just retailers, but vendors, to really accelerate digital retailing. And it was a must because there was, in some cases, no other way to transact in certain states. While the pandemic was a very tragic event for our country, for many individuals, I also think that it was a blessing in disguise for the industry. Whether we accelerated because of the pandemic or we accelerated later on, this was coming.

What are customers looking for in an online retailing environment?

Consumers want more information online, whether it be the price for the trade-in value or whether it be the payment. In many cases, they are selecting the retailer they work with based on the level of transparency and information. But it’s not about just transparency. Lots of companies out there give pricing information. They’ll tell a consumer whether they can get a fair deal. But consumers want a done deal. That’s why AutoFi is kind of in a good position because they can share with the consumer a real done deal. That is going to be the key to the future.

Consumers are very frustrated with getting certain information online and it changes once they actually get in the store. And so we have to enable the consumer to get as much or as little information as they want online, and also to be able to make that consistent with what they experience when they’re in-store.

How are these trends reflected in the current environment?

Digital retailing tools are even more critical because of the inventory shortage. The pricing of vehicles is as high as it’s ever been. The way that I look at it is that these digital retailing tools — and particularly on the finance side of it — are even more important for the consumer now because they’re having to grapple with an expensive vehicle that they’re likely going to have to finance, and even finance in the longer term than they had in the past.

You as a consumer now have to fight to try to find vehicles, and it might not be in your backyard. I’m hearing of dealerships that are getting calls about vehicles from other consumers in other states.

How important is it for even small dealerships to operate digital retailing platforms?

If you don’t have a digital retailing presence, it would be the equivalent of your store being closed on a Saturday. Your digital retailing presence as a dealer now opens you up not just to your local consumers, but really to the entire country.

As an industry, we still have Internet departments. The whole dealership is an Internet department. We almost have to change our mindset from thinking about digital as the website when really, digital is the dealership.