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The Future of Car Buying is Here

Automotive News Millennial & Gen Z

My journey from being a leary car-buying newbie to creating a platform that changes the way millennials and Gen Zers buy cars.  

15 years ago I was 27, and within a 6-month period I had moved out of NYC, bought my first house and had my first baby. (Well, technically my wife had the baby, but I was there to fetch Jell-O out the communal fridge and I can tell you with confidence that I was damn good at it.) 2004 was filled with monumental life events, yet the most daunting of them all, and the only experience that required me to recruit reinforcements (in the form of my Uncle Frank), was help in buying a new car. Think about that: I was more nervous to talk to a car dealer than I was to meet the doctor who would eventually deliver my son. The absurdity of this hit me years later while discussing the automotive industry with my long-time friend and business partner Lyamen Savy.  

Ok, so back Uncle Frank. At the time, my uncle was a newly retired police officer with a dangerous amount of free time on his hands. He was also a car guy and I was not. He had restored Mustangs, could change his own oil and had purchased plenty of new and used cars in his life—but more valuable to me than his automotive experience, was the fact that he took crap from no one. I love my Uncle Frank immensely, and if you’re lucky enough to have him in your family, he is the sweetest and most generous guy on earth, but you don't want to be the waiter that brings him an overcooked steak—he can be loud, he’s difficult to please, has little tact and holds absolutely nothing back. And as much as I hated to unleash him upon unsuspecting auto dealers, I needed a guy like him in my corner.  

We hit a strip of dealerships in Watertown, CT trying to find the perfect car for our needs (and budget). As expected, every conversation was a cringeworthy one. I watched dealers squirm and then eventually get angry while Uncle Frank bullied answers out of them and questioned them on their alleged transparency. He was so merciless that my wife wanted to give these poor guys a hug after our test drives. However, as unpleasant as it was to witness this unnecessary brutality for two consecutive weeks, it felt good to know I had an advocate.  

Along the way we met an amazing dealer named Keith who helped us find the car of our dreams (albeit our broke, 27-year old dreams). Keith was helpful, straightforward and totally transparent about the process—and he did it all willingly, without Uncle Frank's waterboarding techniques. In the end, we probably didn’t even need my uncle's help—what we needed all along was information and a whole lot of hand-holding. 

Over time, I realized my experience wasn’t unique. Lots of people younger people felt the need to bring  an Uncle Frank with them car shopping. Why? Like I was in my 20s, they’re uninformed and mistrusting of an industry they know little about. If young car-shoppers can't get the information, the experience and the transparency required before they visit to the showroom, then they’re going to be in a defensive position before they even walk into the door. Or, worse than that, they’re going to get an Uncle Frank to come with them. Or, even worse than that, they aren't going to come at all.  

15 years ago, the term "mobile-friendly" didn’t exist, and what websites lacked in information, they made up for in font size and all caps. But here's the thing that Lyamen and I discovered—not a lot has changed. Sure, dealership websites may look better, most of them are mobile-responsive and there are even some pretty good 3rd-party tools out there, but in general, the industry is moving at a significantly slower pace than the competitive forces that sit upon the horizon.  

I didn’t have many options in 2004, but today's young car buyers have plenty. Although millennials and Gen Zers love to drive just as much as other generations, they don’t necessarily subscribe to the traditional buy/lease model. They’re open to non-traditional ways of owning and driving cars such as manufacturer subscription models, vehicular vending machines, self-driving cars, car-sharing services and ride-sharing platforms. And the reality is, to stay competitive and viable, dealerships like yours have no choice but to keep up with the digital technologies and experiential needs that the younger generations have come to expect. If we can't properly engage, inform and educate young car buyers, or if we can't relate to them in terms of design and user experience, then the chances are slim that kids like mine will ever visit a showroom, or have the opportunity to work with a knowledgeable and helpful dealer like Keith. This is why we built 321 Ignition. 

321 Ignition wants to help you empower your younger customers so that they can be their own advocate. So they’ll walk into your showroom relaxed, empowered, informed and ready to buy. We want to help you sell more cars, faster and offer the ultimate customer experience. As a designer, I can tell you that making the fonts larger isn't going to cut it. Making your site just "responsive" on a mobile device won't do it either. Your online presence needs to transform entirely so that it can engage and retain today's young car-buyers.     

The dealership model is about to change. When? In 3…2…1...  

DJ Haddad 
CMO of 321 Ignition