Step by Step: How Car Consumers are Reshaping the Road Forward

Jun 13, 2023
The Autotrader Team

Having a digital presence as well as online capabilities is something every auto dealer needs in order to do business in today’s times. However, it’s not just a Field of Dreams scenario – if you build it, they will come. Today’s consumers have specific wants, needs and preferences in how they can purchase cars, and it’s reshaping the process for consumers, dealers and the industry alike on a whole.

In order to plan for the road forward, successful dealers know mid-year is the perfect time to take a look at both their current business and marketing strategies, as well as map out how they plan to step into and bridge into the eCommerce future that is already knocking on their front door.  

To do this, it’s important to understand where consumers are, where they’re heading, and what your business should be moving toward for the road forward.

Consumer needs and preferences are reshaping the purchase process

When thinking about today’s consumer, it’s important to remember there’s been an evolution in the way they research, shop, and purchase cars. Especially over the last few years. In-market auto shoppers have new and different considerations during the shopping journey, and you must have new and different ways of strategizing and running your business than you did in years past.

A successful strategy should be firmly centered on meeting consumers where they are. No longer a linear path, consumers follow the purchase path in different ways, at different times, and take different steps in a different order.

But by focusing on personalization and offering a frictionless purchase path that both aligns with their needs while simultaneously overcoming their pain points, you’ll still arrive at the end goal of making the sale and giving your customer the experience, they desire. Staying in front of them, no matter where they’re at in the process, is key. With so many different types of shoppers that your dealership comes across online, it’s important to take a step back and do a deeper dive into who those customers are, what their pain points are, and how you can offer solutions to not only capture their attention, but also gain their trust and business.

Cox Automotive’s recent Car Buyer Journey Study identified five (5) segments of consumers, and the two (2) categories that they fall in – one shrinking in the market and one growing.

Growing Segments: Comprised of two different segments, the growing category includes Efficient Independents and Guided Innovators. Efficient Independents comprise roughly 18% of today’s market, and they’re mostly Gen X’s (1965-1980) and Millennials (1981-1996). The largest sector is the Guided Innovator. They make up a quarter of in-market auto shoppers. They’re the youngest – being comprised mostly of Gen Z (1997-2012) and Millennials.

Both growing segments prefer to buy online – with 75% of them
saying within the next 5 years they would buy entirely online
and currently complete 10 out of 13 purchase process steps online.

Shrinking Segments: It’s also important to note that the three (3) other segments found in the shrinking category are more likely to still buy in-person, however they still take some steps online during the purchase process. The Researchers, Traditionalists and Resisters prefer a process they are familiar with and that’s worked for them previously, that’s very straightforward and simple. These shoppers typically only complete 4 out of 13 shopping steps online.

So, what are the opportunities here for you? We can see how consumers want to do business online, but it’s important to remember it’s still new for them. Focus on educating them and bringing them along the purchase path with you. Your business and marketing strategy should be dialed into those growing segments. They’re online, and in our “Amazon world” they’re open to or moving toward buying high ticket items online, like cars, predominately online both now as well as in the very near future.

Advantages to stair stepping your digital retailing tools into eCommerce

Not every in-market auto shopper wants the same things from their online experience, but one thing they all do want is options. Our research shows that consumers don’t want to follow a prescribed sales process. In fact, 9 of 10 consumers prefer a flexible, personalized car buying experience.

With a complete full service-connected digital retailing experience, like that provided by Cox Automotive, you can give them just that.

Unlike digital retailing, eCommerce directs customers to complete the purchase through an online store

When it comes to promoting and marketing digital retailing and eCommerce, there are several different strategies that businesses can use.

Digital Retailing Strategy: It’s important to focus on creating a user-friendly experience for customers when it comes to digital retailing. This includes optimizing your website or mobile app for search engines, ensuring that customer service is top-notch, and using targeted advertising to reach potential customers. You also want to give shoppers the tools to explore the information they are comfortable researching or calculating on their own (inventory, trade-in values, financing terms/payments, F&I products) and make it easy for them to move and bridge the process to the dealership when they’re ready. Being able to easily pick up where they left off will increase their confidence, satisfaction and willingness to do business with you.

eCommerce Strategy: Businesses should focus on creating a visually appealing online store that’s easy to navigate as they shift toward the full eCommerce experience. Other strategies to consider include using social media to reach customers, running targeted ads, and optimizing content for SEO. Additionally, businesses should consider using customer relationship management (CRM) software to store customer data and track customer activity. Everything from the car, to add-ons, to financing, to delivery and so on should be connected and seamlessly lead into each other.

Overall, digital retailing and eCommerce are two very different forms of retailing. However, both can be successful if dealerships take the time to properly promote, market, and educate the consumer on them and how their business integrates them. By taking advantage of strategies such as SEO optimization, targeted advertising, and actively using the many features of CRM software, dealerships can maximize their chances of success for their business in both digital retailing and eCommerce.

Is automotive eCommerce the way of the future?

Automotive eCommerce is becoming more and more popular as a way of retailing because it’s all about convenience. With eCommerce, customers have access to a much wider selection of vehicles and access new markets than they normally would. Additionally, they can browse through different models and features at their own pace and make informed decisions before making a purchase.

Today’s consumers both want and expect a flexible, personalized car buying experience on their timeline. And eCommerce provides exactly that.

What can you do now to prepare for the automotive eCommerce revolution?

In the beginning as you work step-by-step from having a few digital retailing solutions toward being fully eCommerce enabled, it’s essential to have a strong online presence. This may sound easy, but it involves more than you may think, and it’s built brick by brick, step by step.

Sure, this strategy includes setting up a high functioning easy-to-navigate website, creating a social media presence, and using SEO and PPC, but it also includes building strategies around integrating eCommerce technology into your business plan and timeline as it is adopted within your business and how you’ll market it. When you plan for the shift, it will make it easier for you to track customer preferences and trends if you make it possible for your customers to browse and buy vehicles directly from your site.

For the road forward

The automotive industry is on the cusp of a revolution, and working toward stair stepping your digital retailing into eCommerce is at the forefront of this change. By creating an online presence and integrating eCommerce technology into your business model, then supporting it with a thought-out marketing and consumer educational plan, you can ensure that you’re prepared for the future of the automotive industry.

Reshaping is and will continue to happen to the auto purchase process. And as times and consumer preferences change, so must your business plans and strategy. When you leverage the power of mixing, matching and modernizing your digital retailing toward full eCommerce capabilities, you’ll not only reach more customers and streamline operations, but you’ll also have the ability to unlock the potential for your business’s future success.

Autotrader provides you with qualified leads for people who want cars. We have the data that connects and activates your data, and we have the shoppers. We know what they want, and our goal is to match them with our dealer partners, driving quality leads and delivering a 35% higher gross profit on average. We connect you with customers virtually, to move shoppers to you, so that you can focus on building and letting your brand shine.

Cox Automotive has the most connected and comprehensive view of the automotive industry and offers unmatched data and insights into consumer behavior, automotive trends, and operational best practices. Whatever your goals, we can help you get there faster to stay a step ahead and successful in today’s marketplace.

Want to hear all the ways to fully activate your first party data to plan for a more successful road forward? Catch the replay of a unique webinar opportunity with Automotive News hosted by Jade Terreberry and Noah Lee. They share examples of actions you should take now, and outline strategies successful dealerships and OEMs are implementing to make the most of your marketing efforts and dollars. Access the on-demand replay: