After being paralysed at the beginning of the pandemic with sudden forecourt closures, the cogs of the motor industry began to turn again following the first lockdown in spring 2020.
A short while later, car sales continued with click-and-collect or delivery services.
An increasing number of drivers decided to buy a new car without trying it first – in fact, 10 per cent of shoppers bought their car online according to a recent survey by Vauxhall Motors.
Getting a new vehicle from forecourt to driveway can be done with just a few clicks, which is a huge pivot for the industry.
And digital-only offerings such as Cazoo and Cinch have sprung up in recent years, showing the appetite for the online car market even prior to the pandemic.
Subsequent lockdown restrictions are now beginning to ease across the UK – showrooms were able to reopen in Scotland from April 5, England and Wales were following suit today (Apr 12), while in Northern Ireland outdoor showrooms can reopen from April 12 and potentially indoors from April 26.
This will usher in a new, hybrid environment for dealers.
In this new world, the most successful dealerships are likely to be the ones that truly embrace a hybrid style of selling, by recognising the opportunities of both the physical and the digital and how they can support and complement one another.
Many buyers still rely on in-person dealerships for advice and expertise after doing their own research, to understand their financial options, and to take the car they want to buy for a test drive.
Nowadays, visiting the forecourt is often the last step in the car-buying process, and therefore an important one.
In our survey of 2,000 drivers conducted pre-lockdown, 80 per cent of drivers said dealers provided expert knowledge and 85 per cent felt dealers really understood their needs – leading 70 per cent overall to buy a vehicle from a dealership.
In the face of the tight restrictions of the past year, dealers have made great strides in developing often-innovative digital forecourts.
With the in-person dealership experience returning, this progress will be extremely valuable in supporting and enhancing the whole car-buying process.
One of the trends that we’ve seen in recent years, accelerated by the pandemic but by no means born out of it, is a more savvy and decisive buyer.
Before the pandemic, drivers were typically taking 24 hours to hunt around before choosing the car that they wanted.
In today’s world, not only can buyers research the model they want, but the rollout of smarter technology allows them to explore finance options online too, helping them to pick the subscription model that suits their needs and go all the way to the checkout from home.
Today we can subscribe to anything and everything from TV channels to vegetable boxes, and the car market is no different.
People’s needs are changing and a subscription model can be more suitable than outright ‘owning’ a product.
A key component, then, of the digital dealership is ensuring that the different finance options are reflected on websites, online classified adverts, and social channels, for buyers to research themselves.
Dealers have been putting finance calculators on to their website so that customers can research the cost to finance each vehicle and get a better sense of what they can afford before getting in touch.
In our recent research, we found that affordability/ price was the most important consideration for buyers, with just under half (48 per cent) citing it as the main reason for opting for their chosen car.
Dealers are recognising this sentiment and providing the tools for customers to shop around for the right finance option and easily compare quotes.
New options enable dealers to email a finance quote to a customer who can complete a finance proposal form from home – like through our own Remote Quote and Apply tool.
All of these developments are helping customers understand their options when showrooms are closed, but as we move out of lockdown, it will support the car-buying journey both in person and at home.
For dealers who are stocking electric vehicles, it can be beneficial to engage with customers who are shopping around online first.
Online resources and guides – such as video tutorials on how to charge plug-in vehicles, or walk-throughs of different electric models – can help drivers decide if it’s the right car for them.
As more electric cars are brought to market, having this advice upfront on websites and social media channels will be increasingly valuable and mean a more informed prospective buyer arrives on the forecourt.
Ultimately, the needs of consumers will continue to change, and dealers will need to ensure that it shapes their forecourt, so that they are supporting consumers with their hybrid buying journey.
Smarter and more robust retail models, including the digital forecourt, will be extremely valuable not only as we move out of lockdown but for the long-term future of the industry.