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IRX 2017 INTERVIEW Ian Plummer of AutoTrader on the digital forecourt of the future

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Ahead of this year’s InternetRetailing Expo (IRX 2017) we’re hearing from key speakers at the event. Today we hear from Ian Plummer, director of manufacturer and agency at AutoTrader, on visions of an omnichannel store of the future. Ian previously worked at Volkswagen UK.

InternetRetailing: What’s your vision of how the omnichannel store will develop in the next five years or so?

Ian Plummer, director of manufacturer and agency, at AutoTrader: The key will be in more and more seamless systems of connection from one part of the customer journey through to the other. That’s between the digital and the physical, and across all platforms.

The success factor is that you won’t notice the joins between the phases of your customer journey from one to the other and back again, whether you’re on-site with a retailer or using digital with VR or AR at home. The digital world will feel more “real” and physical; and the physical touch points will include a lot more digital! The two will blend together. In particular, I think it’ll feel more joined up than it does today – it can feel clunky today in the automotive industry as in others. You don’t necessarily feel you start a journey online then turn up at a store and continue seamlessly. The change to a seamless experience is the biggest probable one that I can see in the automotive industry in particular.

IR: In order to get from here to there, what do you think the biggest change will be?

IP:The quality of the technology is helping endlessly, but the biggest change and the biggest driver of success which we worked on very hard when I was at Volkswagen was actually the engagement of the people. To make these sorts of things happen, to get digital really working in store and to join up the dots, the people in the store need to be totally engaged in the journey. Some industries are further ahead than others, as a result of disruptors like Spotify, which has shaken up music, or Netflix, which has shaken up the film and video industry. Some people have gone out of business; others have the chance to evolve if they don’t want to be eaten up or made irrelevant. Once you have a clear strategy and the right tools as obvious start points, the biggest change factor is the ability of the people in the brands and industries we’re talking about to deliver the future customer experience… today! The people in the stores need solutions that work for them – not just the consumer. And they need to be involved in the journey so that they actually want to make change happen – proactively! Easier said than done – the challenge is to help people who have often been used to doing something in the same way for the last 20 years to adapt to new and challenging customer expectations that disrupt those 20 year old habits.

IR: How will retailers deal with that challenge?

IP: The challenge is a risk on one hand and an opportunity on the other. If you don’t react you will fall foul of it, as Blockbuster did. Others, such as Argos, do react and find a new relevance. It’s not enough to be scared by the risks though. The opportunity needs to be painted as a very clear picture of where retailers need to be heading in order to be successful and respond to new customer expectations. Behind that, you then need simple and pictoral steps to help understand what good looks like and how to deliver it. At AutoTrader for example, we have around 430,000 cars on the website. They aren’t our cars: they belong to private individuals, independent garages, and franchised retailers. The challenge is getting all retailers to buy into a vision of the digital forecourt – and it needs managing with huge attention to detail. For example, he quality of the images and videos of the cars you’re trying to sell can make a huge difference to the attractiveness of those cars for customers. The smartest people have already bought into that – but the challenge is getting everyone to believe in the opportunity rather than the risk so that they can lead change in a positive and proactive way. But there will be people who fall over. The smart ones will act quicker and better.

IR: Will that be because of the channel rather than the product?

IP: People buying a car generally go to the dealership at the end of the buying process, once they’ve already done all their research online. They look at more generalist websites, and at the brand website. When you narrow yourself down into the brand experience website, you’re really just corroborating what you’ve probably already researched. And you’re looking to refine your choice, specify your exact options and configure a model to determine a price. The showroom visit and the test drive experience is one of the only physical touchpoints you have, , which means that a retailer has a very limited window of opportunity to impress somebody, and much less relevance than you used to have. The key to success for a retailer is therefore not just to make that seamless physical-digital link, but also to add real theatre and a certain “wow factor” to the retail experience whenever they have contact with the customer.

Digital could even make that test drive experience almost go away if you don’t seize that opportunity – you can virtual reality drive cars these days from your own home. It’s very limited in terms of how well that technology it works at the moment, but that will change in the future. If you take that test drive out of the equation, then all that’s left is delivering the vehicle. That can be delivered to your home. That creates a risk for the retailer – and means that more than ever there’s a real need to focus on that wow factor when you’re engaging with that digital opportunity rather than fearing it.

IR: What one big benefit do you see coming out of the ability to join all this up?

IP: The power of data is huge – and in most industries, including automotive, untapped. If you are able to provide the right inventory to the right place at the right time thenyou’re more likely to provide a vehicle to a customer which is really the right one for them than the one that you’ve got, and which you push the price on because you want to shift your stock.

By using that data more cleverly you provide a better customer solution, which should also provide better stock management for the brands and retailers.That should mean that we can create a value added solution for all stakeholders – the customer gets the right car at the right price and the retailers are selling more cars, quicker at better margins. There’s a lot of capital tied up in a car, so putting the right car in the right place at the right time represents a real opportunity.

IR: Aside from your own presentation, what are you most looking forward to at IRX 2017?

IP: I think the benefits for me from attending events like this are meeting other like-minded people and hearing what’s going on in different industries, opening your mind to new ideas and concepts. It’s as much seeing and hearing what’s going on on stage as talking to people one to one, and perhaps following on discussions from something you’ve heard in a presentation, or talking to like-minded people from another industry that may have something to share. That’s top of my list personally.

Ian Plummer is speaking in a panel discussion in the From Clicks to Bricks Conference at InternetRetailing Expo, which runs from April 5 to 6 at the NEC in Birmingham. The omnichannel store of the future panel discussion is at 3pm on April 5. To learn more about IRX 2017, its sister conference eDelivery Expo and to register for free, visit and

Attendees can also get a 25% discount on their train fare to the NEC when they book through the IRX or EDX visitor information website.

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