What Car Shoppers Are Asking Now & How Auto Dealers Can Adapt to Changing Buying Behaviors

May 22, 2020 John Kehm

The COVID-19 pandemic is an evolving situation, and with each set of updated or loosened restrictions, consumers have new questions about what this means to them. Auto dealers find themselves in the position of needing not only to understand the implications for their business, but also the need to answer car shoppers’ questions and address concerns.

Amidst the challenges and uncertainties, there are plentiful hopeful signs in the economy that consumers are reacting to. For instance, the University of Michigan’s benchmark consumer confidence survey figures ticked slightly upward between April and May 2020, even while consumers’ expectations for their personal financial circumstances in the year ahead worsened slightly.

This same survey found that while health continues to be the primary concern of more than half of American consumers about the COVID-19 pandemic and worries over personal financial impact remain high, an increasing share of survey respondents have begun to identify “social isolation” as their primary personal concern. 

Successful engagement with consumers means understanding their concerns and how these factors intersect with the practical auto industry issues of inventory, production, financing and more to create even more uncertainty and confusion among automotive consumers. For dealers to have success in the current environment, they will need to answer as many of these questions as possible.

In this post, we look at how auto dealers can adapt and answer the questions car shoppers are asking right now, including:

  • Is this the right time to buy a new car?
  • How much of the auto sales process can and should I do remotely?
  • Will I be safe if I go into an auto dealership?
  • Can I leverage the current situation to get a good deal?

Is Now a Good Time to Buy a Car?

Last week, we noted that the U.S. just went through its single biggest one-month increase in unemployment since the end of World War II, but roughly 90 percent of those job losses are expected to be temporary rather than permanent.  As a result, “wait and see” has seemingly become default consumer car-buying behavior in most areas of the country. 

In response, many OEMs and lenders have developed programs that offer deferred payment starts, interest-free financing, payment waivers for purchasers who lose their jobs and other mechanisms to address and alleviate shoppers’ fears.

Whatever the terms, many consumers will choose pre-owned vehicles instead of new cars. The glut of defleeted and off-lease cars and disruptions to new vehicle production have created an imbalance in the marketplace in favor of pre-owned vehicles on dealer lots. This creates an opportunity for dealers who adapt to changing consumer car buying behaviors, appealing to customers’ financial concerns with offers that take advantage of OEM CPO programs, financing terms or other special offers, along with lower across-the-board pre-owned vehicle prices.

How Can I Buy a Car Online? ?

As we’ve discussed before, digital retailing is more important than ever. The online car buyer is no longer an outlier, but in many states right now is the only car shopper auto dealers can legally engage with. Formerly niche OEM online sales and home delivery programs have exploded in importance and use, forcing auto dealerships to scramble to staff and execute on practicing safe vehicle delivery.

Your auto dealership’s BDC has likely taken on massive new importance in the current environment, and it should have the tools and resources at hand to manage large components of the car shopping and sales process virtually for your prospects. 

Of course, service cannot be done remotely and requires physical interaction with the customer’s vehicle. While challenging in the current environment, safe and effective service drive management is an opportunity for auto dealerships to build long-term loyalty with consumers.

 Is it Safe to go to the Dealership?

Simply put, many consumers do not feel comfortable car shopping in-person yet, and they likely won’t for some time. One poll taken in the first week of May found that only 11 percent of adults believe it is currently safe to end social distancing and reopen businesses.

This makes it absolutely critical that your auto dealership both shows and tells your customers exactly what steps you have taken to respect their concerns and demonstrate your care for their health and well-being. 

Notably, part of keeping your customers safe is keeping your employees safe. Your customers should know your auto dealership is practicing social distancing among employees and otherwise being safe and smart throughout the entire building.

For more information on best practices for alleviating customers’ safety concerns, see our free 35-point checklist for reopening your dealership

Can I Get a Good Car Deal?

Consumers know the auto industry is taking a significant hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, and this gives shoppers additional leverage in the sales process. While some car shoppers are planning on delaying purchases rather than cancelling them, others are going ahead with planned new or used vehicle purchases hoping they can find a good deal.

The evidence so far is that bargain-hunters are right to start shopping. OEMs are responding to the COVID-19 crisis with significant incentives, and more are likely to come as new vehicle production resumes in the coming weeks and months.

Notably, while most OEMs have long offered a variety of occupational discounts for military, law enforcement, fire and other first-responder occupations, many have expanded these programs to include offers for healthcare workers.  Auto dealers should ensure that these programs, if available, are both promoted broadly online and in the dealership, as well as factored into their personalized marketing campaigns.

 

What questions are you hearing from customers? What questions do you wish you had the answers to? Contact us and let us know how we can help you prepare for a restart.

Explore additional resources related to dealership sales during COVID-19.

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