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Six recent trends will probably change car buying for good, study finds

Amidst the pandemic, consumers have shown renewed interest in owning a car

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Photo (c) Rattankun Thongbun - Getty Images
A study of recent car buying trends suggests that dealerships’ transition to digital sales during the pandemic will become a permanent fixture in the process.

Researchers at Cars.com also say that six trends that have altered how dealers and consumers interact have changed the process for the better.

"The current climate drove dealerships across the country to quickly adapt to meet the changing needs of American car buyers," said Alex Vetter, president and CEO of Cars.com. "It has been incredible to witness an industry as large and established as automotive respond with new technology and adopt new processes to ensure a safe and frictionless car-buying experience.

Vetter is referring to the business model quickly adopted by dealers. Dealers already had new and used vehicle inventories online, so websites were modified to allow consumers to select a car and have it delivered to their home for a test drive.

Consumers seemed to like that approach, as people continue to purchase cars during the height of the economic shutdown, albeit at a slower rate than before. Dealers also like the approach since it makes their salespeople more productive, enabling them to handle several transactions simultaneously.

Ridesharing less attractive

Vetter says the pandemic also appears to have stopped another automotive trend dead in its tracks. After years of ridesharing ascendency, consumers are increasingly interested in personal transportation.

“As the pandemic continues into the second half of 2020, more people will turn to car ownership to safely get around while social distancing,” Vetter said. “And I believe we will see durable changes to car buying and selling that deliver an improved experience for all."

Digital buying is one of those durable trends. Consumers have long used the internet to shop for cars, but Cars.com predicts that the sales process will stay online long after the pandemic.

By May, car sales through Online Shopper, a digital sales platform, were up 63 percent compared to before the pandemic hit. According to Cars.com research, 71 percent of car shoppers want to complete some, if not all, of a car purchase online.

AI chatbots

The report also shows that AI chatbots were widely deployed at the beginning of the pandemic to support digital sales. That trend, the company predicts, will continue.

Thirty percent of American car shoppers want their local dealerships to offer at-home test-driving, while 31 percent want dealers to deliver their car at home after the purchase.

After years of decline, the sedan is making a comeback. Cars.com reported a 14 percent uptick in sedan search activity from April to June.

Finally, consumers appear to be focusing more on the used car market. Cars.com reports that the highest average search price fell from $39,000 to $27,000 between March and June. 

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