How the Hunt for a New Car has Changed

Although more people are “clicking tires” to take car shopping research online, the customer experience is still at the heart of the businesses for automotive dealerships

By Susan Gubasta Wheels.ca

Jul 5, 2018 3 min. read

Article was updated 5 years ago

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When I began working in the retail car industry, I would meet customers who had been to seven, eight or more dealerships before visiting our Toyota store.

Car buyers managed the bulk of their car shopping by visiting multiple dealerships, talking face-to-face to multiple salespeople, collecting multiple printed brochures and test driving multiple vehicles.

Going from dealership to dealership is no longer the norm. Today, because of the transformative power of the internet and the popularity of smartphones, the car-buying journey looks much different. We have moved from ‘kicking tires’ in the showroom to ‘clicking tires’ online.

To illustrate a modern car-buying journey, in 2016 Google released a study called The Car-Buying Process: One Consumer’s 900+ Digital Interactions. The search giant followed a female car shopper over a three-month period and determined that she conducted more than 900 digital interactions before making a buying decision.

Those interactions included 139 Google searches, 14 YouTube videos, 89 images, 69 dealer interactions and 186 manufacturer interactions. This shopper explored 14 brands, considered six brands, and narrowed down her selection to the final two (consisting of at least 100 interactions).

clicking tires

Another study — by ACA Research — followed the automotive customer journey from initial research to final purchase. According to the study, “Generally the automotive vehicle purchase journey for the vehicle and finance can take between five and 12 weeks.”

A recent Autotrader study revealed that car shoppers now spend 59 per cent of their time researching online, and 78 per cent of car shoppers used third-party sites.

In 2017, a J.D. Power Study revealed that “56 per cent of automotive internet shoppers conduct product research on a mobile device and that more car shoppers are using a mobile device than a desktop or laptop.”

What are car shoppers doing online? Researching car prices, looking for vehicles listed for sale, comparing makes and models, reading car reviews, inquiring about the value of their trade-in, researching dealerships and arranging test drives.

Among those shopping for a vehicle, 22 per cent said that they used social media, with YouTube being the most popular at 13 per cent.

A big factor in the car-buying journey has been the evolution of the customer experience. Autotrader reports that 72 per cent of consumers would buy from a franchised dealership that offered “their preferred experience, even if it didn’t have the lowest price.”

The deal is only a piece of the equation. People want to do business where they feel comfortable and where there is trust.

The customer experience covers a range of activities, from initial contact (on the phone, via email or on a website) and interacting with dealership staff, to purchasing, servicing and/or and taking delivery of a vehicle. Online experiences should mirror in-store experiences; the two should reflect each other.

Customer experience also includes a store’s physical appearance, on-site amenities such as customer lounge, Wi-Fi and shuttle service, personal dealings with sales staff and managers, test drives, and the ease of completing paperwork.

With any vehicle purchase, there are many touchpoints along the buying cycle, and dealerships are constantly trying to make each touchpoint as seamless and pleasant for the customer as possible.

Dealerships and manufacturers are highly focused on customer experiences. They routinely send customers sales and service surveys.

That focus on customer experiences extends to social media as well. Dealerships are constantly monitoring their reviews on Facebook, Yelp and Google.

Indeed, as technologies and online platforms evolve, so does the automotive customer journey. Car buyers are using more sophisticated tools and platforms as they research and buy vehicles, and dealerships are working hard to meet — and exceed — expectations at every touchpoint.

This column represents the views and values of the TADA. Write to president@tada.ca or go to tada.ca. Susan Gubasta is president of the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association and is president/CEO of Mississauga Toyota. For information about automotive trends and careers, visit carsandjobs.com.

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