Technological innovations in automobiles have advanced rapidly in recent years, improving safety, performance and reliability. Electric drivetrains are becoming mainstream, and the advent of autonomous vehicles is only a few years away.

By contrast, the dealer organizations at the front line have remained rather conventional in their approach. Even with recent attempts to streamline sales and reduce the number of dealers, the retail model has seen no radical changes in services, customer experience or cost. Today, sales, marketing and distribution still consume a significant share of the revenue from each vehicle sold. A few new entrants—most prominently Tesla, which started with a clean sheet—have built direct, online-heavy retail systems, but most of the industry is saddled with legacy dealer networks and contractual obligations.

However, car-buying behavior is changing in ways that will force radical and disruptive change in auto sales. Digital natives are becoming mainstream car buyers with completely new expectations, and older generations are picking up new habits. Conditioned by Amazon and other online experiences, car buyers increasingly follow omnichannel customer episodes: They research, select and buy cars in different ways than their non-digital predecessors, and increasingly they expect the same capabilities and service quality when shopping for cars as they experience in other aspects of their digital lives.

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