Survey: Consumers more satisfied with vehicle shopping experience than pre-pandemic

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Vehicle buyers’ satisfaction with the shopping experience dimmed last year as they encountered a shortage of new models and higher sticker prices on dealership lots, but they remain happier with the process overall than before the onset of the pandemic.

That’s among the findings of a Cox Automotive consumer survey out this week. Buyers’ satisfaction with the shopping experience from the research stage through delivery dipped to 66 percent in 2021, down from a peak of 72 percent in 2020 but an improvement from 60 percent in 2019, according to the survey.

Consumers who did more of their purchase digitally tended to be happier with their experience than those who did more work in person, Cox found. And buyers’ satisfaction with their experience while at a dealership also stayed above pre-pandemic levels — 75 percent last year, which is essentially unchanged from 77 percent in 2020 but better than 70 percent in 2019, according to the survey.

The findings signal that auto retailers have adjusted their purchase processes during the pandemic in ways that resonate with consumers, even as the market continues to be challenged by a shortage of microchips and new vehicles that has pushed up prices, said Vanessa Ton, senior industry intelligence manager for Cox Automotive.

Consumers reported transaction times at a dealership that were similar to 2020 and faster than years past, and more satisfaction with digital options, including when applying for financing, the survey found.

Ton said she anticipated that consumers would be more discontent with the overall shopping experience with fewer vehicles to choose from and rising prices on those that were available. Instead, she said, dealerships now offer digital purchase options, help with financing and clean facilities during a pandemic — all of which have made the experience tolerable, even enjoyable.

“I just thought people were so sour on inventory challenges that that’s going to sour their experience,” Ton said. “But that was not the case at all.”

The findings suggest dealerships have been able to sustain the efficiency of new digital purchase practices they put in place at an accelerated rate starting in 2020, she said. That’s when the start of the pandemic in the U.S. forced auto retailers in many states to temporarily shut their stores to in-person business.

Cox surveyed 2,976 U.S. consumers who either bought or leased a vehicle, new or used, from September 2020 to August 2021. The survey tracked both buyers’ satisfaction with the research and shopping steps of a vehicle purchase, as well as with their experience at a dealership.

The macro-level constraints dampened consumers’ trust in the vehicle deal and how satisfied they were with the amount they paid, according to the survey, but the impact wasn’t as steep for buyers who completed more purchase steps online. Seven in 10 consumers who did more than half of their transaction digitally said they trusted they got the best deal from the dealership, the survey findings showed, compared with 59 percent of consumers who did no more than 20 percent of their purchase online.

“I think you’re better prepared and you’re probably scouring the Internet and being more detail-oriented. Therefore, you’re probably able to find a better selection,” Ton said of the more heavily digital buyers. “You probably find that with more selection, you have more options in price — therefore, it’s going to help you make the best purchase decision that you can make.

“Therefore, you’re more satisfied with the overall process, and you save time because you’ve been pretty efficient in doing everything that you need to get done online prior to going to the dealership.”

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