Last updated: The car buying experience: Engaging the reluctant consumer

The car buying experience: Engaging the reluctant consumer


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I’m a ‘hand-raiser’. Prompted by the actions of thousands of other Americans, I’m actively preparing to buy a car. Please note, I don’t even have a driver’s license. As I embark on the car buying experience, though, I can’t help but think like a designer.

Cars are obviously amazing machines, and they’ve always offered their owners incredible freedom. In a way we couldn’t have imagined a few months ago, there’s something newly compelling about car ownership – safety. Potentially great news for car manufacturers, it means that there’s an immediate and urgent pressure for the car buying journey to transform.

Here are some of my observations and a few recommendations for the auto-industry as they grapple with the same issue that we all are dealing with… global behavioral disruption. 

Curves ahead: Disruption spurring changes across the auto industry

It’s very clear that the global auto industry is recalibrating – and that the car buying experience is changing, too. In January of this year, CNBC reported that US auto sales would be about 17 million vehicles in 2020. That number, constantly being revised is now expected to be about 13 million. USNEWS notes that April car sales were off by 45% from 2019, but that was only 4% off by the second week in July.

Numbers, however, only tell part of the story.

Attitudes, expectations, and behaviors are shifting and adapting. Some will eventually return to pre-2020 standards, while others will continue to be shaped by our news realities.

In April, Mintel notes that car buyers fall into two camps – ‘WANT car buyers’ and ‘NEED car buyers’. The ‘Wants’ are expected to be very deliberate about owning a particular vehicle longer due to economic concerns, the ‘Needs’ will buy a car in the next 3 to 6 months due to lease expiration, mechanical issues, or general reliability.

COVID-19 is making auto ownership more appealing and the car buying experience more important

I contend, through my personal bias, that there’s actually a third group, the ‘OPPORTUNIST car buyers.’

The Opportunists, like me, are exploring and weighing the increased flexibility, freedom, and – above all – health related peace of mind that automobile ownership would offer. This includes who have not owned or leased a car in years as well as those who have never owned a car.

In the new world, they no longer trust the close quarters, and high touch environments of public transport. They want to be able to experience the world on their own term, and that is with a focus on limiting their exposure to contact with others. The car has recently become associated with a type of safety and freedom previously overlooked…wellness.

With a new urgency to be able to quickly get to family and friends in a social distant environment, people also want to be able to attend to more mundane, everyday activities like obtaining food and other supplies.

Until this spring, cars were often focused on the daily commute. It has now morphed into a symbol of care and reduced health risk. Car owners have a new advantage, a highly sought after one, over non-car owners. Car ownership is the ultimate social distancing enabler.

Historically closed to the idea of purchasing a vehicle, some people have turned to rentals and car share services as a workaround to avoid both public transportation and ride share services. Interestingly, this taste of car ownership seems to be a gateway drug to actually purchasing one., butts in seats, and voice of the customer 

With a laser focus on contactless and convenient experiences, is it possible to simply buy a car online? Yes. And no. It depends.

Being spoiled by Amazon, the first thing I googled was whether Amazon sells cars. No. But… they do have a Vehicles-Amazon research site and community with Amazon reviews. And they have an extensive auto parts site for after-market products. I do wish they had an ‘’. Very dangerous to have ‘one-click purchase’ activated.

CarMax, Vroom, Carvana, and Tesla and others all offer full digital pixel-to-door commerce. From my experiences, it’s possible to buy online through other manufactures and retailers, but it’s complicated. That is, of course, my personal impression. I have no time to actually review all of the car related sites.  I have, after all, a car purchase to make.

To keep the mere tire kickers satisfied, there are more virtual tours via 360 spins and YouTube videos that ever before. These virtual experiences act as a filter so those who actually show up for a test drive are more likely to actually become buyers.

Unfortunately, there are a great many that disappoint. The ‘QuickTime 360 Spin’ of days gone by was quite the innovation for its day, as was IPIX. VR seems obvious so I’m still surprised I still cannot find high-resolution VR tours of cars on my Oculus Quest – not even one sad little prototype or beta test.

Real estate has moved to 360 videos to narrow choice. Auto websites are doing the same. The intent is to help a consumer narrow their choice to one specific test drive and to become more invested in the end game purchase. In fact, the concept of ‘butts in seats’ comes to mind here. It may be anecdotal or even apocryphal, but if you’ve worked in the auto industry, this is a pillar of the ‘leading indicator’.

A person who takes a test-drive and has a relatively positive experience is highly likely to buy that car within 30-days. True or not, there was a time when dealers would provide incentives to take a test drive.

This precursor behavior was the one behavioral experience event all salespeople aimed for. Get their butts in the seat. It makes perfect sense, but there’s a great deal that can get lost in the virtual world. It’s certainly not visceral. It doesn’t engage all the senses. Where is that new car smell? How does the door sound when it closes, or the engine (if there is one) sound when it starts?

I’m reminded of a Media Influencer Kit (that’s a real thing) that was sent to online influencers to promote a new show called Game of Thrones. Success is never a guarantee, so HBO sent a few dozen of these hand-made sensorial kits out to promote the show. The kits contained carefully designed oils that when dipped in paper could be combined to recreate smells from the show – such as the kitchen, or a rainy day, or flowers that were featured. It was full-on amazing and basically ‘olfactory VR.’ I wonder what the auto industry is working on to influence us – especially those of us who are new to the market?

A friend recently commented that “I should not be trusted to buy a car.” She was correct, as most of us are in no way qualified to select and buy a complex and extremely expensive machine. Once basic comfort, safety, price, performance, efficiency concerns are met, it all comes down to emotion. There’s not much that is rational about the process even if we try to convince ourselves otherwise. It’s a cognitive mess.

It’s always been a matter of trust

Mintel also reported in April that “Half of consumers say they dislike visiting dealerships and that they find salespeople to be untrustworthy.” This is yet another hurdle for the industry.  In the past, the industry has been viewed with a profound lack of trust so the virtual buying experience will need to overcome that.

What effect will this lack of trust have in the execution during the final moments of the digital car purchase experience?

Someone once said our current world is not so much a disrupter as it is an accelerator. I like this sentiment. We’re seeing the auto industry accelerating the path into digital (but not yet VR). Young people were previously discounted as potential car owners. There were, after all, often not even interested in getting drivers licenses. They have fundamentally changed their attitudes around ownership of cars and are now appreciating the freedom and safety that come with car ownership.

On the whole, our spending and savings habits are accelerating into the behaviors of retirees. Spend less, save more, travel less, cook more. Focus on health, safety, and wellness and spend more time with a smaller circle of friends. Given this acceleration of both good and bad, what can the auto industry do? (aside from VR…)

The car buying experience: Three factors contribute to overall outcomes

A Tesla owner once told me that the first time he test drove his car, it was a transformative car buying experience. It’s not the futuristic iPad like dashboard or even the speed of the car that was the most compelling aspect. It was the feeling of instant torque. He said that once you feel this physical sensation, you can’t do without it. The electric power is instantly translated to kinetic energy which flows to each wheel. There are blessedly no gears, shafts, gee-gaws, and doo-dads to get in the way. It’s elegant. It’s simple.

And this is what sells the car: The experience is everything.

There is a semi-permeable membrane that we must struggle through that stands between a person and actually owning a car. It is inherently uncomfortable because – for most people – it is saturated with unknowns. Navigating landscape with no trusted GPS for this journey means it is easy to make a wrong turn, it is easy to get lost, it is easy to feel vulnerable.

Some car manufacturers have figured out the car buying experience, like Tesla. Given the industry trust issues and new safety issues, auto manufacturers need to rebuild the buying experience, so it is commensurate with the significance of the investment. I don’t think we’re going back to 2019. All the components of experience have to be re-evaluated, for the sake of the industry, and the sake of OPPORTUNISTS like me.

In a dramatic over-simplification of experience, one can think of experience being broken into three components – UX, CX, and BX:

  1. User Experience – Head: “This works great.”
  2. Customer Experience – Heart: “I just love this.”
  3. Brand Experience – Soul: “I cannot believe I ever lived without this.”

It’s important to consider this because car manufacturers do lots of research and conduct many surveys.  They’re trying to do all the right things to bring experience to life – that’s not at all the problem.

The problem is the tendency to look at the world through silos of UX-CX-BX. That means the dots do not get connected and the full potential of the ideal customer experience never really comes together.

So, I’m a ‘hand-raiser.’ I think I want a car. I do not look forward to this journey.

Thank you for reading and I hope to NOT see you any of you on the road. I really need practice driving… and definitely need insurance. That’s a story for next time.

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Discover how digital tech is transforming the auto industry HERE.

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