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What One Shopper's Journey Reveals About Modern Car Buying

The process of shopping for a car once meant grabbing your car keys, spending weekends going from dealership to dealership, test driving, taking notes and making comparisons. But now instead of grabbing car keys, people grab their smartphones. In fact, the average car shopper only visits two dealerships before purchasing a car.

Consumers are efficiently researching and making decisions about which car to buy at different micro-moments that begin months before they ever set foot on a lot. If auto marketers want to reach today’s car shopper, they need to understand new micro-moments that shape the car-buying process.

To help us get a closer look at modern car shopping, we partnered with Luth Research to analyze the digital activity of one individual named Stacy over the course of three months. Stacy is a 32-year-old mother of two, and was interested in getting a new car because of the upcoming addition to her family. At the time of her search, she drove a mid-size SUV that seated her family of four. With a third child on the way, she needed a new car that could fit everyone and their gear -- so she explored larger SUVs and minivans, and ended up selecting at minivan.

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During the three-month period leading up to her decision, Stacy’s research included over 900 digital interactions where she intentionally sought out information. These interactions — which took the form of searches, visits, video views, and clicks — were on Google, YouTube, manufacturer Web sites, dealer Web sites, and review Web sites. More than 70% of Stacy’s digital interactions occurred on mobile.

Looking at her journey, along with larger patterns we observed across our platforms, we identified five moments that significantly shape car buying today:

Which-car-is-best moments. Six out of 10 car shoppers enter the market unsure of which car to buy. Stacy began by focusing on family-friendliness and safety, which led her to consider several brands and models.

Is-it-right-for-me moments. As shoppers begin to weigh practical considerations (like seating capacity and number of airbags, for instance), they start to determine their checklist of important features. For instance, Stacy’s checklist included fitting three car seats and having a sliding middle row.

Can-I-afford-it moments. As shoppers narrow down their options, cost consideration comes into play. Stacy explored pricing and payment options that were right for her, including: price points less than $30,000, comparisons of leasing vs. buying, lease exchange programs, and the trade-in value of her current SUV.

Where-should-I-buy-it moments.  Although much of the car-buying process has moved online, the visit to a dealership remains a crucial step for many car buyers. In fact, search interest for “car dealerships near me” has doubled in the past year, as per Google. As Stacy explored nearby dealerships, she also considered local inventory, deals, and specials.

Am-I-getting-a-deal moments. Although many take place at the dealership, Stacy spent time researching deals both on the lot and off. She researched lease money factors, read about how she might forgo a dealer altogether, and crowdsourced actual prices paid for different brands and models so that she could show up prepared.

The question for marketers is how to answer these moments of need. As one example, we have found that searches for "pictures of [automotive brand]" are up 37% year-over-year with 80% of those searches occurring on mobile, per Google Trends. So we are working on ways to introduce more imagery into search ads.

Ultimately, Stacy leased a minivan that met the criteria she was searching for in her moment of need. And she likely picked a brand that was there at these pivotal moments. Stacy is one example, but what we’re seeing across the board is that the smartphone is becoming the new car lot. Mobile represents countless opportunities for auto marketers to be there and to be useful. Be sure you are measuring your brand’s visibility on mobile and showing up in these new car-buying moments.
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