Consumers who use the Internet to shop for a new vehicle spend an average of 18-19 hours researching new and used vehicle purchases, according to the recent Automotive Buyer Influence Study conducted by Polk and AutoTrader.com. In both segments (new and used purchasers), approximately 60% of shopping time was spent online.  

The study also revealed that 58% of used vehicle buyers and half of new vehicle buyers said their Internet research was the most influential element in their vehicle search, and ultimately led them to the dealership where they made their vehicle purchase. As part of their business-planning initiatives, OEMs and dealers need to be certain they’re developing Internet strategies to meet consumers’ needs; which means understanding and investing in web features that are most valued – and maintaining them regularly – to drive consumer traffic to their showrooms.

The survey polled 4,005 U.S. consumers who recently purchased a new or used vehicle from a dealership. More than 70% of new and used vehicle buyers said that they used the Internet while shopping for their vehicle, according to the study. In addition to being the most-used channel for information, 2/3s of those surveyed rated the Internet as “extremely helpful” in their purchase decision. In comparison, only 1/2 of used and new vehicle shoppers rated a referral from a friend or family member as “extremely helpful” and other sources (TV, radio, direct mail) scored much lower.

Despite the popularity of social media among consumers, only 3%  of the new- and used-car buyers surveyed said social networking sites influenced their vehicle purchase decision. This is not to say that OEMs and auto marketers should ignore social media. However, it serves as a reminder about the other primary channels that are currently more influential in the vehicle shopping process than social media. Marketers must make sure they’re doing everything they can to market effectively and efficiently through those channels before focusing too much on their social media efforts.

The study showed that among new vehicle shoppers, vehicle comparison tools are most helpful, followed by pricing information. Used vehicle shoppers preferred pricing information followed by vehicle comparison tools. Forty-two percent of new vehicle buyers use the Internet to find out about special offers, dealer rebates and incentives, much more than their used car counterparts at 28%.

Search engines are commonly used, with Google cited as a primary mechanism for getting car buyers to the dealership website from which they purchased their vehicle. About 1/2 of buyers who visited a dealer website arrived at that site via search. According to the survey data, for most car buyers however, search engines are the new Yellow Pages: Buyers are using online search engines to find specific information like the address, website or phone number of dealerships they already know or are aware of.

The study also highlights the continued importance of walk-in traffic to dealerships – and how consumers shop online and then most often arrive at a dealership without emailing or phoning the dealer 1st. According to the study, 7 out of 10 vehicle buyers walk into a dealership without establishing any contact with the dealership first. As a result, dealerships must maximize their online marketing – both in marketing the vehicles they have for sale, as well as their dealership experience.

“Regularly updating inventory levels on dealer sites, as well as third-party sites, is critical information for vehicle shoppers,” said Andrew Price, vice president, sales and client services, Automotive Retail Solutions and Media of Polk. “The research shows that shoppers frequently want to see side-by-side vehicle comparisons and vehicle pictures. They also are looking for current specials and discounts. Driving prospects into the showroom from the website is essential to winning business in today’s Internet-oriented vehicle shopping environment.”

[Source:  “Automotive Buyer Influence Study.” Polk/AutoTrader.com. 4 Feb. 2011. Web.  17 Feb. 2011.]