Dealertrack is moving ahead with online marketing of extended warranties, as well. Dealers can post specifics on long-term maintenance options or protection plans for tires, wheels and other components.

EFG also is simplifying the F&I process and making it faster by reducing the complexity of routine-maintenance programs it offers through retailers. Its new plans eliminate provisions requiring owners to service their vehicles within a specific time period and instead are written around the customer’s long-term mileage expectations.

Stephens says the switch makes it easier for F&I managers to match the right program to the buyer’s life-of-ownership needs. Customer satisfaction is increased, because consumers don’t have to worry about missing a service interval they’ve paid for in advance.

“When you talk about…the efficiency of F&I, the digital aspect is one piece of that,” he says of the movement to post more information and process transactions online.

“(But) the structuring of the products is the other piece. How easy are they for the consumer to understand? And how can we structure them so that they’re very individual, (but) much easier for the F&I director to act as that consultant and talk about the lifestyle (of the buyer), instead of trying to push and sell something?”

Spearheading the drive into digital retailing are Millennials, the roughly 22- to 34-year-old group that is among the most comfortable with online shopping. That segment of the population is expected to account for 40% of new-vehicle purchases annually in the U.S. by 2020.

New-car shoppers today are coming into showrooms ready to deal. Where they visited five dealerships before buying a vehicle just a few years ago, they now average less than two stops, says Dealertrack’s Barrie.

“Consumers are getting better information online, and it is really driving their decision as to where they’re going to consummate that vehicle purchase,” he says.

eBay Motors, which connects some 30,000 car dealers to 155 million buyers around the world, says it already is seeing 48% of its transactions “touched by mobile,” meaning consumers at some point use their smartphones or tablets as they hunt down the right vehicle.

“There’s been a lot of conversation around: ‛Millennials don’t buy cars,’” eBay Motors General Manager Bryan Murphy says. “I don’t think that’s true. I think they buy cars very differently, just like they buy everything else very differently.”

Despite those trends, some resistance remains among dealers to the overall digitization movement. Many are reluctant to put financing terms online or to detail specific warranty and maintenance program costs before a customer sits down with an F&I manager.

“Any time there’s change there’s concern,” Barrie notes.

But the resistance is no different than the hesitation dealers once had about putting vehicle inventory on line or negotiating price through emails. Ultimately, they’ll jump onboard this trend too, the Dealertrack executive believes.

“Now the next step is, ‛Should I be putting payments on my website, trade-in offers, F&I options?’” Barrie says. “So we’re seeing a progression. The consumers don’t want to spend four hours in the dealership. They don’t want to go to five dealers.

“They want to walk into the dealership, get their test drive, understand their options and have a very transparent experience.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com