Let’s be honest: the last 18 months or so have been brutal. I could expound at great length about politics, science, and medicine, but at the end of the day, the great truth is that no matter what anyone believes, knows, or feels, we’ve been through nearly two years of anxiety, stress, and death. It’s been bad, and the reality is that it’s going to continue to be bad for a while. Amidst all of this, however, there have been a few good things to take notice of, a few roses amongst the thorns that we can all stop and appreciate.
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the last 18 months is the way that this pandemic has impacted the auto industry. Weirdly, it’s actually been very good for the industry – not only in terms of car sales, which have been great for the companies making cars but also in terms of how cars are sold. The car-buying process has changed, perhaps irrevocably, in numerous ways over the last year-and-a-half, and the results are actually pretty great for all of us. Honestly, the vast majority of these changes benefit us, the car buyers and shoppers, and I don’t think many of them are going to revert to how things used to be any time soon.
The Online Shopping Boom
Nearly everything that has changed about shopping for and buying a car has come about due to the push for online shopping. To be clear, buying a car online wasn’t suddenly invented last year in response to the pandemic; numerous services and dealerships have been developing methods for buying and selling cars online for years. A lot of large dealers have been improving their websites and creating more tools for shoppers to use online, but for many people, the idea of buying something as expensive and important as a car over the internet still seemed insane.
That all changed last year as dealerships had to shut down their physical locations (except for service centers) and shift all of their selling to online. Even as dealers started to open back up, a lot of people remained far more comfortable handling things through the internet rather than in person. This all resulted in just about every dealership developing new and better methods for handling pretty much every part of the car-shopping experience online.
Those dealerships that had already been working on it were the best prepared for this shift, and it validated everything they had been doing. Suddenly, all those dealers who thought they could just ignore emails from potential customers or rely on automated responses found themselves needing to join the rest of the retail world and treat online customers with respect. It was a massive change and will likely alter the car-buying process forever.
No-Pressure Car Buying
This shift to shopping online created a no-pressure car-buying experience that pretty much every customer found far superior to how things used to be. I don’t have to tell you about the reputation that a lot of car salespeople have for being pushy, aggressive, and seemingly only interested in what they wanted to sell you. Not all salespeople are this way, of course, but enough are and have made this reputation well-earned and scare away potential buyers with anxiety.
Suddenly, however, salespeople lost their edge and their advantage – they weren’t strictly necessary anymore. They couldn’t try to pressure you into making a purchase because you didn’t want to leave the lot or worry about the car you’re already falling in love with not being there in a week. It’s a lot easier to walk away from a deal when it simply means closing your web browser rather than leaving a dealership after spending four hours haggling and looking at cars.
All of the power, which buyers already had, by the way, became clearly held by people shopping for cars. The pressure was gone, and the entire car-buying experience became much more enjoyable. This isn’t a bad thing for dealerships at all. Actually, sales have been booming, and a big part of that is that people now feel more confident in shopping. There’s still some stress, sure, but overall it’s a more attractive prospect and bringing in more people who are interested in buying a car.
Test Drive Changes
Perhaps best of all, the test-drive process has also changed and, in many cases, become a much more rewarding part of the experience. In the past, a test drive often included the previously-mentioned pushy salesperson riding along and perpetually trying to continue selling the vehicle. With the pandemic, however, suddenly shoppers were allowed to take a test drive alone, without the salesperson sitting next to them (social distancing and all).
So now, people are able to actually test the vehicle, to experience what it will be like to drive it every day and get the most from it. Again, this has resulted in boosted sales. Who’d have thought: people like being able to relax and go for a test drive in an environment that lets them simply feel everything the car has to offer? Best of all, a lot of dealerships and online retailers started making test drives even easier by bringing the vehicle to the customer. You can shop online, have the car brought to your home or business, and then test it by yourself to feel if it’s right for you. Sometimes, you can even test-drive the vehicle for a couple of days.
The common thread in these changes is that the dealership has been increasingly removed from the process. It’s like the salespeople and dealers got themselves out of their own way and created a more relaxing and enjoyable buying experience. The result is that more people actually want to buy a car. A lot of folks don’t want to be in a bus or other crowded mass transit with strangers right now, and a relaxing test drive immediately makes it clear how much more enjoyable it is to drive alone to where you need to go.
Benefits for People of Color and Women
One of the biggest changes that a lot of people aren’t necessarily talking about is how this shift to online buying has been advantageous for people of color and women. As unpleasant as it might be, there is a fairly significant amount of underlying racism within the car-buying process. One recent study from 2018 by the National Fair Housing Alliance showed that non-white car buyers paid an average of more than $2,600 more over the course of a car loan than less-qualified white customers. It’s a sadly well-known part of the car-buying process for people of color.
With the shift to online shopping and every part of the process, including financing, being handled virtually, this seems to be changing. The car-buying process can now become colorblind and create a fair experience for everyone shopping for a car. Women are also historically treated poorly when shopping – their wants and needs in a vehicle can be frequently overlooked or seen as unimportant compared to what a salesman wants to push. Again, by removing personal interactions from the experience, women and people of color can receive fair treatment and a more rewarding and affordable experience.
What Does the Future Hold?
How much of this is only going to be around for the next year or two, and how much of it is here to stay? I can’t say for sure, but most experts feel that the car-buying process has changed, in some ways at least, forever. People have seen how easy, hassle-free, and quick it can be to shop for a car online; much like the shift to online shopping for everything else in our lives, this isn’t about to change anytime soon. It’s a safe bet that online car-buying is here to stay – manufacturers like Volkswagen and Nissan are leaning into with their own “shop anywhere” programs – and it should be good news for shoppers for many years to come.