January 2, 2014, 4:36 PM

An auto dealer invests in a suite of apps

Sonic Automotive has been launching a series of mobile apps for its employees and for consumers shopping from its 105 dealerships nationwide. The apps will speed the process of car buying and help spur sales of more vehicles and services, a Sonic executive says.

Lead Photo

A screenshot of Sonic's Auto Search app.

Car retailer Sonic Automotive Inc., which operates 105 vehicle dealerships across the United States, is on a mission to use mobile apps to change how consumers buy cars. In addition to releasing an auto search app for consumers, it is midway through launching a series of iPad apps for its dealers to use on site and during test drives with customers to help with everything from appraising a trade-in’s value to closing the sale of a new vehicle, says Rachel Richards, Sonic’s vice president of retail strategy and business applications.

Eventually, the apps will reduce the time it takes a shopper to complete a car purchase from three or four hours on average to about 45 minutes, she says. A big part of the savings will come from Sonic digitizing as much as possible the paperwork legally required for a vehicle sale, and making it possible to fill in that information on a tablet computer.

“Consumers have asked for the automotive buying experience to change for years, but no one has taken that leap forward,” Richards says.  “A few years ago, we decided to invest and pick the partners to help us do that. We believe this is aligned with the way a consumer wants to shop.”

Mobile traffic accounts for about 26% of Sonic’s online traffic, and it keeps growing, Richards says. She declines to say how much the company has invested in mobile development, other than calling it “a significant amount,” but says the move to mobile is already paying off through increased trade-in sales and more efficient inventory management.

For instance, with one of the new iPad apps, a salesperson can examine with a customer the car she brought in to trade and quickly gather all the information needed for an appraisal. The app then connects to Sonic’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., and gives an immediate price quote based what similar cars in the area are selling for, Richards says.

Since deploying that app, Sonic has increased by 25% the number of customers who complete the appraisal process and trade in their cars, Richards says. “There’s also a significant increase in customer satisfaction because it enables the associate to have a customer engaged in that whole process of evaluation,” she says. Otherwise, she says, customers usually just sit and wait while a dealer goes through an appraisal.

Employees are also saving time on such processes as inventory management. For example, another app lets them scan vehicle identification numbers on the lot, taking stock of the full inventory in about one hour rather than a full day, Richards says.

Sonic began building mobile apps about two and a half years ago, when it found mobile app development company Lextech Global Services through an Apple Inc. recommendation, she says. The retailer also uses the services of a few other mobile vendors and its in-house I.T. staff to coordinate building the apps, which are also available for Android devices, she says.

The consumer-focused Sonic Auto Search app, which Lextech built, allows shoppers to find cars based on attributes and locations, compare features and prices, and find a dealership. That app’s location-enabled search functionality is also available on Sonic’s mobile web sites, Richards says.

The retailer hasn’t been promoting the app heavily yet—it plans to showcase it in a branding campaign later this year when it finishes rolling out the rest of the mobile apps for its associates, she says. By then, Sonic will have added further web capabilities for consumers, such as letting a shopper collect in a basket online the cars she’d like to test drive and schedule an appointment to do so at a local dealership.

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