How online car buying may get a booster shot from Coronavirus

Will car buying ever be the same?

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced Americans to rethink a lot of their buying habits – including car shopping – and dealerships to rethink the way they sell vehicles.

“Suddenly, going to a showroom to rub shoulders with dozens of other customers, sales people and staff doesn’t seem like such a good idea,” wrote Steve Hanley on the website CleanTechnica.

Man car buying on phone in showroom

The new normal may be more about online shopping on dealership websites, sales appointments, phone calls, “no-contact” home delivery of vehicles for service customers, test drives and purchases. In other words, online car buying may get a booster shot from Coronavirus.

Or then again, the new normal once the pandemic is over may look a lot like the old normal.

A lot could depend on social-distancing rules imposed by local and state governments and whether in-person automotive sales is defined as an essential service. The federal government, meanwhile, has recommended that all car sales be considered essential.

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“How do you sell cars when showrooms are shuttered and customers are locked away in their homes?” Hanley also asked on CleanTechnica.

“Online, of course. That’s what’s happening all across America as car dealers race to create online portals, figure out how to [bring] cars to customers for test drives, and struggle to find ways to get legally binding signatures from people without direct human-to-human contact.”

But will that remain the case as states begin allowing regular sales in showrooms and lots to resume?

Accommodating customers

As recently as last week, one dealer in Dallas, TX, promised to sanitize vehicles between test drives and provide gloves to prospective customers, adding, “These are just a few of the many ways we keep our facilities clean and accommodate the needs of our customers.”

And another dealer, located in Plano, TX, said, “You can purchase your car by phone, test drive without a sales person, get our best pricing up front and have it delivered right to your home.”

While the sales process may be different right now, the question is whether that will continue long term. Or will dealerships return to regular sales habits when reopening their showrooms and lots as soon as they are given the all-clear by local and state jurisdictions?

Simplicity and efficiency

Shopping online will remain appealing to many Americans because of the simplicity and efficiency.

“It’s worth remembering that much of the shopping process – researching the right car, applying for a loan, some aspects of negotiating – can occur online from the social-distanced security of your home,” wrote Kelsey Mays at shopping website Cars.com.

“Online car buying was starting to grow in popularity prior to the COVID crisis,” explained Julie Blackley of iSeeCar.com, an automotive research website. “Those consumers who may not have felt comfortable making an online car purchase are now being forced to do so if they need a car right away.”

The change in shopping habits because of the pandemic is going to “fundamentally change” how people view buying a car, Rhett Ricart of the National Auto Dealers Association, told The Detroit Free Press.

Some lessons learned?

“The car dealerships that are adopting an online model will likely keep it in place, and as a result, online car buying will become more commonplace even after this is over,” said the iSeeCars spokeswoman.

Hanley suggested that lessons learned during the pandemic could change attitudes about online sales. “Once people experience the freedom that comes with online car shopping, it is highly unlikely they will want to revert to the old ways of doing business.”

“There’s no reason to think that the shift to car shopping [online] will be temporary. For one thing, dealerships have an incentive to use the online tools … most retailers have been exploiting for years,” according to Annie White in Car and Driver online. “More important, lots of customers want to buy their cars online. Carvana’s research says that 97 percent of shoppers are already using the Internet to research cars, and 75 percent would consider buying a car online.”

But the Cars.com writer had another perspective on the online movement:

“The relative safety [of shopping for a car] will depend on crowds at the dealership, as well as how you choose to buy … it’s too early to draw broad conclusions.”

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