US car-buying platform Roadster expands into UK

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Roadster, the US e-commerce solutions provider for dealerships, has expanded into the UK market, with pilot programmes already underway with dealers.

Asset Finance International’s Miles Rogerson spoke to Rob Abrahams, UK lead for Roadster, to find out more about the company’s expansion plans and how it took inspiration from the fashion industry for its development.

AFI – How does Roadster operate in the US, what makes it different to other competitors?

Abrahams – Currently, we’re in the early stages of launching here in the UK with a couple of dealer group partners, but in the US, we’ve reached almost 1,000 partner dealers over the past three years. There is a lot of discussion in the industry at the moment around the idea of online sales and e-commerce, and so I think that the main differentiator for the Roadster proposition, is in where it positions itself – firmly in the omni-channel space.

Right now, e-commerce and transacting a vehicle completely online takes up a very small portion of the car-buying audience, and so Roadster is equally focused on technology that enables customers and dealers to bridge the gap between the dealership and the web.

The Roadster product itself is not just an e-commerce product, but in fact 99% of what you see as a consumer on the dealer website is exactly what you would see in a dealership, either at a point-of-sale screen or when you are sitting with the salesperson. That’s a polar difference to what happens right now, where the industry still seems to treat the web and the showroom as two completely different things.

At the current time, you can do a lot of research online and then walk into the showroom and be treated as a brand-new customer, whereas we try to bridge the gap between those two things to allow people to hop in-and-out of that journey at their own pace. Alongside the technology behind the platform that hails from Silicon Valley’s best, that’s been the driving force behind the success of the product in the US.

AFI – How was Roadster formed?

Abrahams – The founding team actually have a background in fashion retail. 10 years ago, in fashion, there were similar discussions to the automotive industry now, on the topic of buying clothes online. Many people thought that nobody would buy clothes online, and that they preferred to go into a shop and try the clothes on, so looking at the shift there you can see the similarities to the auto industry discussions today.

The team were building e-commerce engines for clothing stores and brands, and when they successfully exited the business they started searching for other sectors where there was a similar phenomenon taking place.

Roadster was started as a small brokerage in San Francisco, where the team built the technology that exists now, but initially operated it themselves as an intermediary. Customers loved the experience and after a few years a couple of the local San Francisco dealerships loved the tech so much, they said that they wanted their customers to be able to buy cars from them in the same way. That was really a pivotal moment for Roadster because they were faced with the decision either to keep operating as a relatively small broker, or to take the technology and offer it to dealers to enable them to offer the same customer experience and transact in that way. Needless to say the option of empowering a much bigger network of dealers and customers with the tech was much more appealing.

AFI – So, considering the success in the US, why the decision to move to the UK? Will it operate in the same way here?

Abrahams – As the UK lead for Roadster, part of my job has been assessing the product market fit, and using my knowledge of the market to work out how the product needs to be adjusted for everything to work here in the UK.
Happily, we’re quite close as a market to the US in terms of dealer set-up and customer journeys; while there are subtle differences in how things work, a lot is the same. The fundamental architecture of the product is consistent, but the data and partners/suppliers are naturally different.

For the time being, we’re focusing on the UK as a primary international target. The technology supports hundreds of integrations with different partners, whether that’s in finance, data, or after-sales products.

Like a lot of US companies, we also see the UK as the most parallel segway into Europe, with the market similarities to the US and the lack of a language barrier. I think it makes sense to expect further expansion into Europe in the future as technology businesses like Roadster are built to scale in that way. The technology that has been built in Silicon Valley is infinitely implementable in the UK and Europe, but for now the focus is very much on the UK.

AFI – How does Roadster hope to compete with the existing market?

Abrahams – We’re aware of competition in certain areas, but we want to prove that there’s a need for the Roadster product in the UK and we are already working with pilot dealers here who think the same. Our focus right now is on growing the product with people that love it, rather than focusing too much on what others are doing. Also, I don’t believe that one player can do everything well, and Roadster is built on this idea of integration and partnership. The more people that are working together collaboratively to build great technology and customer experiences for our industry, the better.

AFI – In 18 months-time, where would you hope to be with Roadster in the UK?

Abrahams – We picked up the pen in January and we’re set to have a live UK demo product next week, so at the mid-year we’ll have built out the basis of a product for the market. As for the rest of this year, we’ll be working with innovative dealer partners to continue building out the Roadster platform for them with all the necessary integrations. The nice thing is, with the technology already so advanced in the US, we benefit from a sophisticated platform right from the off – and every feature enhancement or upgrade that comes from the US, we’ll get here too.

At the 18-month point I expect to see multiple happy dealership groups embracing the platform, and an ever-increasing number of integrations with finance providers, aftersales product suppliers, and data suppliers.
Ultimately, I hope to see UK players in all areas working together collaboratively to support a rapid drive towards a better, more efficient and effective car sales experience.