As success stories go, used car supermarket Carbase’s growth from a gravel pitch stocking just 20 cars to a 3,000 car giant is one of the better ones.
Alex Jones, head of digital and marketing for the car supermarket group, told Car Dealer Live how the business has grown from a small independent dealership into a car sales machine.
In our exclusive video interview, which you can watch above, Jones explains how the group’s digital focus – which has been at the forefront of its strategy for years – has pulled them through the pandemic.
Jones said: ‘To look at the website today and see 3,000 stock and think how far it’s come is a really big change. It’s been really exciting to go on this journey and get to this point.’
Jones explained that along the way there have been mistakes, like when the car supermarket launched an app-like website that he says was a ‘complete disaster’.
But by learning from the likes of John Lewis and Argos in how consumers like to search online, and recognising that not all customers search the same way, the group has refined its website to perform.
He said: ‘The way we now develop our website is we don’t come up with a design we like the idea of, our site is very much based on testing and marginal gains. We’ve got software built into the site which means we can test a multitude of things all the time.
‘The differences you can make with that through the changes to the user experience is absolutely phenomenal. When you look at the conversion rates coming through, it’s like night and day.’
One of Carbase’s biggest wins was with its reservation online function which let customers hold a car – and while some were busy adding that this year as the crisis took hold, Carbase already had years of experience of having it in place.
Jones said: ‘We did a lot of work around the balance between either a test drive or a hold and I would say that’s one of the things that has changed the most over time.’
Jones learned that some customers were only happy to go as far as committing to a test drive online while others wanted to reserve a car as soon as they found it, and it was understanding this subtle difference that helped shape the website to offer both.
He said: ‘Some customers will know the car is exactly what they want, they’ve been looking for three months and have just seen it being advertised and they don’t want it to go so they want to hold the vehicle.
‘We were already offering a reserve and collect service prior to lockdown, and of course the difference in that was enormous.’
Jones said even minor tweaks to the button location for reserve and collect saw conversions increase ‘hundreds of per cent’.
However, Carbase does not offer the ability to fully transact online. Customers can guarantee a part exchange price, they can pre approve themselves for finance and reserve the car – they just can’t complete the deal online.
Jones said: ‘The way we join those three things together is back in the store, so we’ve got a piece of software which takes the customer’s journey and puts it back into one place behind closed doors, rather than actually having an option with a ‘buy it now’ button online.
‘The reality for that is we found when we were testing the individual tools, it just wasn’t what people wanted, the drop-off through the funnel was huge. You can’t predict what part of the journey the customer wants to do first, so we found that keeping it broken into different sections works.’
Jones isn’t convinced customers want to fully transact online and Carbase has been testing and researching this since 2018, but instead believes customers prefer to do elements of the purchase process online instead.
Carbase now markets its business 100 per cent through online digital channels and measures the success of each very carefully. Billing the website as the best marketing tool the company has ever invested in, Jones admits ‘offline advertising just doesn’t work’ for the firm.
In the video interview, Jones also explains how the group managed through the national lockdowns and says he thinks the car industry ‘dodged a bullet’ compared to the disaster befallen on other industries.
He added: ‘I think this year has shown that a car is still an essential purchase for people. I think it definitely shows that personal independent methods of transport is something people are always going to be drawn to.’
Looking ahead to next year, Carbase has increased stock in anticipation of a burst in demand.
He added: ‘We’re really betting on the fact that people won’t be spending their money on other large purchases.
‘The supply and demand for this year has been absolutely wild. So we feel like having the stock through the first lockdown helped us rebuild in the third quarter. It’s just about being brave and holding that stock going into next year.’
You can watch the full Car Dealer Live video interview at the top of this post.