The Digitization of the Automotive Buying Experience


The beginning of this decade has been challenging for the automotive industry, including at the dealer level. The COVID pandemic, microchip supply chain woes, slowed shipments, sparse inventory levels, and now rising costs like fuel have tested the mettle of car dealers worldwide. If they can endure until the end of the 2020s, they may find themselves richly rewarded.

The global automotive industry is set to grow to 9 trillion US dollars by 2030 at a CAGR of 5.5%. This is quite healthy, specifically for an established and mature industry like the auto sector. This growth will likely be the result of increased adoption of electric, connected, and autonomous vehicles, pent-up demand, and the growth of online vehicle sales.

Is your dealership or automotive group ready for game-changing digital evolution in automotive sales and marketing? Here are some objectives to build into your strategy.

Take Control of Your Dealership’s Online Brand

According to our most recent research report, 95% of vehicle buyers use digital information sources when they prepare to buy a car or truck. 80% of buyers use third-party sites when buying a car, including vehicle comparison websites and dealer review channels. Are your prospects (and even your existing customers) consuming more content about your business and your products on third-party websites than on your own? If so, you run the risk of having your brand dictated by those who don’t have your company’s best interests at heart.

The meteoric rise of e-commerce and business digitization was well underway before the pandemic, yet lockdowns and social distancing increased the momentum of omnichannel vehicle sales:

  • Prospects visit an average of more than four dealer websites before stepping foot into a showroom
  • 64% of shoppers watch videos and virtual tours of vehicles to narrow down the number of test drives they take
  • 79% of dealerships lack search functionality for consumers to find the specific vehicle they want, with their desired option grouping.

Due to the power of online sales and marketing, customer experiences are top of mind across industries including automotive, retail, and manufacturing. In the physical and digital realms, automotive buying experiences have long been less than ideal. In fact, 85% of dealers agree that car sales methods need to change. Many dealers, general managers, and sales managers admit that selling approaches need to change. Yet they are unsure what changes will deliver the best results to increase selling experiences, protect margins, and build customer loyalty.

Empowering Online Customers to Buy the Vehicle of their Dreams

OSF Digital conducted an e-commerce benchmark survey with a secret shopper methodology. We wanted to provide authentic, data-driven benchmarks by exploring active dealer websites with some form of e-commerce capabilities of each one of the auto dealerships we evaluated. We investigated just over 500 dealer websites, spread out across 150 dealer groups, and rated them against 19 ecommerce capabilities. You can find some key insights here, and guidance on how you can access the complete report for additional information.

Here are just a few online car and sales objectives you should prioritize.

Online Sales Discoverability

While most new car dealerships in the physical world have the “luxury” of visibility in their communities, getting found online among multitudes of dealers vying for the attention of the audience you’re looking to attract.

The ease of finding your website, and the vehicles for sale on it, is crucial to successful online marketing. Increasing the “findability” of your website, commonly known as search engine optimization (SEO) is critical to any online seller’s digital success. Before anyone considers buying a car on your website or even uses it as a research resource, they need to find it among the competitive online “noise” and explore what you have to offer. Authentic, reliable e-commerce SEO methods that drive results don’t happen overnight and are more a journey than a sprint.

Convincing Web Visitors to Stick Around and Get Engaged

Once a prospect does discover your online presence, you must provide an engaging experience that keeps them from bouncing from your website to seek a more compelling experience with your competitors. Many car buying journeys cross between the digital world and in-person at your dealership multiple times, including test drives, and research validations.

An interactive e-commerce portal that enables buyers to input their personal information into web forms, which flow into the dealer’s customer data platform (CDP), such as:

  • Credit history
  • Driver’s license abstract information
  • Insurance policy coverage
  • Banking information
  • Contact details

Enabling self-service data entry reduces the possibility of human error and removes friction from the administrative stage of the buying journey. 

Bringing Refreshing Changes to the Antiquated Automotive Sales Process

As mentioned above, car buyers and sellers alike have long been seeking changes in the car buying process. Our research found that consumers are reluctant to communicate with auto dealers via live chat, phone or instant messaging.  Twice as many respondents to our survey said they preferred asynchronous conversations and questions via email over real-time conversations. 
Ensuring customers can email you questions via forms or direct emails is critical to online success, evaluation as possible before buying online, or connecting with a salesperson. Ensuring your website is easy to navigate, responsive, and engaging (without pressuring buyers beyond their comfort zone) is crucial to converting virtual tire kickers to buyers. 

Many prospective customers prefer to estimate financing options online to decide upon the best down payment and monthly payment they can afford in the comfort of their home, instead of sitting uncomfortably across the desk from a sales or vehicle financing manager. Online calculation can help reduce the anxiety of discussing their financial situation with a stranger. 

Build to Order Vehicle Buying is On the Rise

Only 7% of dealers let consumers pre-order customized cars. Many buyers look to dealer groups to see where the car they want, with their desired features, is available. You would be forgiven for thinking that online car buying would compel buyers to travel further if they knew the new or used vehicle of their dreams was available. Yet consumers tend to seek out dealer group sites that help them find a suitable vehicle as close to home as possible or order a custom vehicle to their specifications. 

Many consumers that urgently need a new vehicle have been forced to pay over the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for their vehicle of choice when they pre-order it to be shipped from the manufacturer. Despite premium prices driven by the forces of supply and demand, few of the dealers we assessed offered tools to select option packages or individual features. 

A Forbes Online survey found that four in ten respondents planned to build to order their next car, with an understanding that it would take between four to twelve weeks to be delivered.  Since many vehicles require pre-ordering anyway, many consumers feel they can wait a little longer for what they want. 

Driving Digital Experiences Forward During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The sharp increase in online sales and online self-service during the pandemic drove e-commerce and digital marketing innovation across many industries. In the automotive industry, dealers have embraced customer relationship management (CRM) or CDP technology to capture conversations across customer lifecycles including prospect email inquiries, phone calls, credit applications, and post-purchase service visits. 

Many dealers came up with inventive ways of safely engaging with clients during COVID, including online vehicle walkarounds, test-drive appointment scheduling, and online vehicle virtual tours. Yet only about half of dealers enable customers to make a “Build to Order” car purchase with a credit card deposit. Only about five percent of dealers offer 360-degree renderings of vehicles that prospects can explore all the features vehicles have to offer. 

Our research found that customer perceptions being empowered to take control of their car buying experiences are vital for online success. Dealers and automotive groups need to develop a 360-degree, view of their clients, while providing consistent information across their in-person and digital channels, including sales, service, financing, and operations. Continuity and consistency is key. 

Breaking Customer Perception that Buying from Car Dealers is Painful

When you watch commercials for online-only car sales websites like Carvana, Vroom and Carfax, it is clear they are trying to convince car buyers that buying from traditional dealers is inferior. 

Dealers and dealer groups need to beat these disruptors at their own game and showcase their vehicle inventories on their online stores. They need to “plug-in” to online vehicle marketplaces and earn positive reviews which are increasingly important in the digital age. 

It has been clear for decades that automotive sales needed to be disrupted. E-commerce and digital marketing technology have disrupted many industries, and it is up to car dealers to invest in digital transformation so they compete in the online age. In the first few years of this decade, many businesses have found ways to enrich customer relationships and make it easier for consumers to buy the products they need. 

Customers are in the “driver’s seat” of automotive buying processes more than ever before. Dealers that fail to invest the time and money to adopt CRM and e-commerce technology won’t be able to capitalize on the forecast increases in car buying that futurists predict for the coming years. To discover more information about the trends and opportunities of online automotive sales, read The OSF Digital 2022 U.S. Automotive Dealership Ecommerce Benchmark Study. Get valuable insights about driving online sales and enhancing customer experiences.  

Charles Dimov

Author: Charles Dimov, VP of Product Solutions

Charles brings more than 20 years of experience in marketing, sales, product development, and management. With depth and breadth in varied markets, he drives the right go-to-market and demand generation strategies for OSF’s core products. A lifelong learner, he graduated from the University of Waterloo with degrees in management, business economics, and engineering. Charles also holds several certifications in leadership and marketing.