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The talk at the Tampa auto show is how more of us are buying cars by email, text and vending machine

TAMPA

What does it look like to buy a car in 2016?

It's researching cars online from home, then taking virtual test drives on a computer or phone. It's reading reviews from experts and other consumers, then texting or emailing with dealerships to find the right one.

Then maybe you go in to see the car. Or maybe you just have it delivered to your driveway.

"I have a sales manager who did a deal completely via text," said Richard Dimmitt Jr., co-president of Clearwater's Dimmitt Automotive Group. "He never even met (the client) until he came in to drop off the check."

Dealerships from throughout Tampa Bay are on hand this weekend for the Tampa International Auto Show, which kicked off Friday. Beyond the fancy features like self-parking cars, or vehicles that can interact with the driver's cellphone or can sense when the car in front is braking, dealerships are adjusting to a new era in car sales.

Derek Humphrey, Google's account executive who works exclusively with General Motors Co., told a crowd Friday morning that consumers purchasing a car this year on average visited 1.6 car dealerships. In 2013, the average was five.

"They walk in already knowing what they want. … Some will even have the VIN ready," he said, referring to the vehicle identification number. More than ever, car dealerships and manufacturers have to appeal to Web-savvy consumers, he urged a group of local Chevrolet dealers on Friday morning. "You have to be able to get their attention online."

He reiterated a statement from a former Hyundai executive who said many consumers would prefer a root canal to buying a new car.

"We have a team of people just focused on sales on the Internet," said Jaclyn Catania, product concierge manager for Mercedes-Benz of Tampa. Of about 25 sales staff at the N Dale Mabry Highway dealership, at least 15 are working on responding to online inquiries, she said.

It goes beyond the initial calls, however. Customers not only want their groceries and clothing delivered to their doorstep, but Catania said that about 10 percent of their sales are now delivered to driveways.

The innovation and shift online is sure to continue in the coming years. Tampa Bay, a key market for many auto companies, this year welcomed a new one, Carvana, which has turned heads with its coin-operated vehicle vending machines in Atlanta and Nashville. Other online-only competitors like Cars.com are providing an alternative to the traditional dealership model, said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analytics at Edmunds.com.

But not everything can be done online. Dimmitt said down payments are a big challenge because they cannot be made with credit cards, and there are security concerns with processing debit cards online.

"We're not there yet," he said.

The level of competition in the market as well as a shift online has made it easier for anyone to buy a car, Caldwell said. The stereotype of women paying more than they should for a car because they weren't informed is dissipating. Edmunds.com recently released a study that found men and women in the millennial generation are equally as confident in the buying process. Caldwell largely attributed that to the level of research people can do online, like being able to check the price of other vehicles nearby as they are negotiating with sales reps.

Catania said that she has seen more women getting into the industry as well. About half of her staff, from sales associates to managers, are women.

"There are more women here than there ever has been before," she said.

Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.

.if you go

Tampa International Auto Show

10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Tampa Convention Center, 333 S Franklin St. Tickets are $12 for adults, $5 for ages 62 and older, military and first responders. For information, go to Autoshowtampa.com.

The talk at the Tampa auto show is how more of us are buying cars by email, text and vending machine 12/02/16 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2016 8:38pm]
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