A Buyer’s Perspective on Automotive Shopping During COVID-19

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Car buying

“Are car dealerships even open right now?”, we asked ourselves at the end of March as we faced the very immediate need of getting a new vehicle. It had been about 6 months since we realized we likely would need to buy a new car soon, as our current one (that we playfully referred to as “Penelope”) was on her way out. And by on her way out, I mean it could barely make it up the steep hill that leads into our neighborhood without giving us a serious panic attack.

So when we realized at the end of March that our time with Penelope had come to an end, the reality of needing to broach the situation of buying a new vehicle during the brunt of a global pandemic set in.

“Are dealerships even open right now?” “Is it safe to go to them even if they are?” “We’ll have to talk to the salespeople and touch the cars to test drive them, which seems unsafe.” So many thoughts ran through our mind as we tried to navigate how best to approach the car buying process in the midst of a pandemic.

Let’s be realistic, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to deter many customers from making this type of purchase right now, whether that be due to a change in their current financial situation or just a fear of potentially catching the virus while being around others in public spaces. But there is still a need for consumers to buy cars. Whether it’s out of necessity like us, or for those who want to take advantage of all of the OEM incentives.  If one thing this pandemic has shown us is that people feel way more comfortable jumping in their cars for a getaway rather than an airplane so the need is obviously there.  

Now, there are plenty of consumers who may approach this process differently since each person has their own comfort level. We tend to me more cautious and looked for the dealership that offered the “safest”  buying process.

Based on my experience I outlined what dealerships did well and where there is room for improvement:

3 things dealerships did well:

  1. Clearly stated they were open on their websites: I wish this didn’t need to be said, but it does. CLEARLY state on your website whether you’re open right now, whether that be through a dropdown on the top of your site, a pop-up, banner, etc. Some industries have stayed open this whole time while others have not. Some have gone back and forth where they initially closed down, opened back up, and are now being closed down again. It’s hard to stay on top of what’s open and what’s not, so it’s important to communicate this clearly. 
  2. Allowed us to do a majority of the process online before coming in: Typically, it’s a good rule of thumb to try to get a prospect to come into the showroom as quickly as possible, but it’s important to be mindful of each prospect’s level of comfortability when it comes to going to public places. We made sure to be upfront about wanting to do as much as possible virtually before coming in to test drive, but some dealerships were still too pushy and wanted us to come in right away. Again, we’d usually agree this is a good thing, but right now it’s crucial to let your customer’s guide that decision or you risk losing the sale.
  3. Put in place policies that made us feel comfortable: We wanted to know that any dealership we went to was taking this seriously. Ultimately, the dealership we ended up buying from had put in place a few precautions that made us feel safe. 1) Mandatory face masks for customers and employees. 2) Setup their showroom properly with hand sanitizing stations everywhere, propped open doors so there was no need to touch the handles, and shields around their employee’s desks. 3) Allowed us to go on solo test drives. We gave them our license and they gave us a time limit, then we were off. There was one dealership where the salesperson tried to insist they come with us and that was a turn off. 

3 things dealerships did wrong:

  1. Not mentioning COVID-19 to us at all after reaching out: As much as we’d all like to pretend everything is 100% normal right now, it’s just not. By not saying something about the pandemic upfront when talking with us or what their dealership was doing to be safe, our assumption was they weren’t taking it seriously. 
  2. Following up WAY too much and being too pushy: Listen, we completely understand. There are less leads coming in right now, but it’s important to not come across as desperate and harass the leads you do have. Following up and letting prospects know you’re there to help is great! Following up multiple times a day through text, phone, and email when you haven’t heard back from us yet is NOT. We are (luckily) both still working during this time, so we don’t have the luxury of dropping everything we’re doing at all hours to answer you right away. Follow up at your regular cadence to let customers know you’re there when they’re ready to move forward.
  3. Trying to shake our hands or taking off their masks when speaking with us: I’m a fan of a good handshake and I like to see people’s faces when I’m talking with them. BUT when you try to shake my hand right now or take off your face mask to speak with me, that tells me you’re not taking this seriously, which means I don’t know how sanitary the rest of your dealership is. Even if you personally are pretty relaxed when it comes to the current situation, be mindful that a lot of your customers may not be and put into place protocols to make them feel safe.

All-in-all, my main takeaway from this experience is times are different. Just 4 or 5 months ago our car buying experience would have been entirely different. We likely would have test drove more cars and spent much more time in the showroom talking with our salesperson vs. doing that process over the phone and online. With that said, this is a trend I see continuing long after this pandemic ends. The automotive industry has been shifting more and more to appeal to digital shoppers because that’s how many people like to shop nowadays. With COVID-19, we’re likely to see this trend of needing to go virtual with our sales process continue even more rapidly, so if your dealership hasn’t already optimized their digital buying experience, now is the time.

Sign up for a free 7-Day Trial of our Adapt VT Online Automotive Sales Training Platform where you’ll not only get access to our Digital Reality module that helps you appeal to today’s online shoppers, but you’ll also get special COVID-19 resources to help you convert more prospects right now.

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