Researching cars online isn’t a novel approach to car shopping. Even before Covid, shoppers were visiting sites like Kelly Blue Book to hunt down stats on different cars, and possibly their current car, too. During the restrictions imposed during Covid, though, car buyers might have been forced online for multiple phases of the buying process.
While many dealerships are open for business—and to foot traffic—the dealerships might be a bit…quiet. Auto Dealer Today Magazine reports that dealerships are seeing less than half of the traffic they were before Covid. So are car shoppers moving online? Or have sales stagnated?
The magazine notes that sales are recovering; in fact, the magazine reports that “…consumers are now buying their cars and trucks at nearly pre-pandemic levels.” But while they aren’t trekking through dealerships, they may be surfing those dealerships online.
BUYING CARS VIRTUALLY
Covid forced dealerships to move to online sales and offerings. They might have allowed cars to be delivered for test drives. Financing could have been approved online, too. The once standard car buying ritual of visiting a dealership, negotiating in person and then sitting through financing and paperwork might just be usurped by the at-home experience.
And, as Axios pointedly explained: “A three- or four-hour showroom visit can be compressed into a 15-minute online purchase.”
As shoppers likely realized that their once marathon visits to dealerships could now be greatly reduced, the convenience was probably pretty difficult to resist. While eyeballing cars in a dealer lot and even taking a test drive tends to be the fun part of the in-person experience, the assumed pressure on those lots from sales team members who want to move those cars isn’t so joyful.
Dealerships are moving toward the digital wave and embracing change. Axios noted that Sonic Automotive ushered in a “chief digital officer and vice president of e-commerce.” Sonic Automotive has more than 80 franchised dealerships across the country.
If digital and virtual car shopping is indeed the future of the new car experience, what about consumers who have not yet taken a spin in the web of car commerce? How does an individual new to online car shopping begin their search and evolve from the old traditional methodologies of dealership dealings?
Online car shopping isn’t so different from shopping in the dealership. For those new to the virtual experience, here’s how to launch that new car search without leaving home.
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH!
Before Covid, many consumers used online tools to research before heading to a dealership. Again, sites like Kelly Blue Book were popular online destinations. For those consumers who might be in the market for a new or pre-owned car, researching might be the first step.
Not sure what car is the right car? Think about vehicle space, lifestyle needs, and, most importantly, the budget. From there, start with a few manufacturers and begin looking at and comparing different models.
The internet’s edge is its convenience…and also its never ending source of information. Open up two browser pages to view the same type of vehicle from two different manufacturers. For example, compare a Nissan Rogue to a Toyota Rav4.
Consumers can’t really park two similar cars side-by-side in a dealership. But online, the situation is ever flexible. The buyer also has the upper hand when managing their time. At the dealership, a salesperson may try to keep the consumer on the lot. At home, shoppers can close the browser when they are finished looking. Or if they’ve simply just run out of time.
The internet doesn’t require a commute or phone calls. Browsing is at the user’s leisure. And buyers can take the time they need to hunt down prices, specs and other details. Online photo galleries featured on dealer websites also can provide valuable information about cars on the lot.
For newer models—or even older models—sites that offer virtual showrooms allow consumers to view cars from all angles. Site visitors can even look inside cars and preview different paint colors.
THE DEALERSHIPS ARE STILL VERY VALUABLE
Even during the research phase, dealerships are still incredibly valuable. Shoppers can visit dealership websites to check out inventory, new models and even special promotions, sales and/or incentives.
Dealership sites that are updated frequently could be incredibly valuable to consumers, as they would have all current information about pricing and available inventory. For a shopper who is serious about the purchase, seeing a car online only to find that it’s been sold could lead to buyer frustration.
What do consumers really want in a dealership site? According to Jazel Auto, there are three features that are “…pillars of dealership website usability”:
Convenient inventory. No one wants to have to hunt through hundreds of cars to find the right one. Dealerships should make the search easy with filters. And that inventory shouldn’t be buried in the site!
Functional site navigation. Jazel Auto calls this “ease of browsing.” Basically it’s all about the entire site…how easy it is to navigate and if the site holds their interest (a lot of SEO experts refer to this as a site’s “stickiness”).
Mobility. Is the site able to be viewed via a mobile device? This is important because so many consumers use their phone or tablet to browse and search online.
THE FUTURE IS MOBILITY?
Mobility might be the keyword for online shopping. Even before the pandemic, many consumers were tightly bound to their digital devices. Smartphones are very much the norm; almost all teens have access to one of these mobile devices. Of course, as teens age and become adults, mobile devices and society’s dependence on them will be a given.
As shopping goes mobile, those smartphones may really transform beyond what they are today. While many consumers have no problem shopping via the phone, as these devices evolve, their ease of use and their features will evolve as well. The sites—including dealership sites—that are mobile-friendly also will evolve and grow.
Although dealership traffic appears to be much lighter than it was before Covid, online traffic may tell a different story. As sales are recovering, buyers are buying. Cars are moving. This means that dealerships that aren’t already on the mobile bandwagon might need to jump on board and go for a ride.
THE CHIP IN MOBILITY
Covid caused health devastation, financial devastation and supply chain devastation. While it might have put the automotive industry on the fast-track to online sales, it also put the brakes on car sales, too. The computer chip shortage has greatly affected the auto industry and the inventory of some vehicles.
The end of the shortage might not be in the near future. Different experts might have different expectations or predictions, but the burn of that chip shortage might reverberate through summer 2022.
How does this affect consumers? Prices on new cars might not be quite as negotiable, but trade-in values might be higher. With the chip crunch, pre owned cars are a valuable commodity for sales. Consumer Reports reported that preowned (or used) car prices are rising. This is an ideal time to bring in a trade-in or to sell a car that just isn’t being driven.
Unfortunately for dealers, even car keys are being affected. TMJ4 reported that one dealership explained that they could only give new car buyers a single set of keys. Even car keys require a computer chip to open doors and perform other functions. The crunch of chips means that key chips don’t take priority over chips needed for other automotive uses.
WHERE THE CHIPS FALL
While it might take time for the chip economy to recover, eventually suppliers will catch up to the demand, car manufacturers will have the chips they need, and, hopefully, the market will even out. However, until then, what are buyers who are hunting online to do when they are looking for a particular vehicle?
When supply is low, dealerships will have to keep up with demand. That means that many may be posting new inventory online quickly so that buyers looking to buy can find what they want. Customer service on dealership sites also may need to be proactive and prompt if the dealership sees surging online interest.
However, the supply issue could lead to frustration, too, as inventory could change quickly…depending on the area’s demand and the dealer’s inventory. Online searches could surge as buyers hunt for the vehicles they want from various dealerships.
As shoppers move online, though, what does the future hold? Could car buying become like ordering anything online? Will consumers literally add a car to their cart and schedule delivery? This might not be so far off.
In the future online car ordering could become the new in-person shopping. However, as cool as a virtual and online car-buying option might be, some consumers might always prefer the standard face-to-face experience. The future may be a hybrid model…the perfect mix of virtual and in-person! Or maybe buyers can choose their own shopping experience. Now, though, dealerships may be anxiously waiting for the chips to settle before they try to guess where the car buying adventure leads next.