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BUYERS and dealers, driven by the impact of the COVID-19 virus, are going digital at a more rapid rate than the previous pace of market evolution and it is  changing consumer expectations of the vehicle purchase process, according to a report into digital research by Cox Automotive in the US.

The report, “COVID-19 Consumer and Dealer Impact Study”, found that at April 5 this year, 80 per cent of US dealers were employing digital research as a business tool, up from 64 per cent one month prior.

It also said that while there was market uncertainty that was disrupting the traditional car-buying experience, dealers were quickly embracing new buying alternatives.

It found most shoppers were keen to do more transactions online and noted that 73 per cent more of the people surveyed were likely to finalise a car sale online after March 1, the start of the COVID-19 period.

The research further supported digital as a shopping tool by finding that after March 1, 30 per cent more would apply for a car loan online; 37 per cent more would use online to arrange a test drive; and 14 per cent more would use digital to research warranty and service offerings.

Cox said the results led to a key takeaway that demand for digital was helping dealers move forward and that most were planning to retain the experience for consumers after the COVID-19 is expected to end.

“The continued adoption of digital and touchless experiences will have long-term implications that extend well beyond the sale of a vehicle,” the research said.

For franchised dealers, 79 per cent said they saw value in continuing their digital adoption of processes after the end of COVID-19 and 26 per cent said they would expand digital in the buying process in the future.

Using digital also expands the boundaries of where dealerships normally operate with Cox stating: “Dealers are working to accommodate car buyers’ concerns by conducting business beyond their physical location.”

Cox said dealers were looking for best practices to support vehicle sales and 66 per cent said they were working with customers using digital tools as a result of COVID-19.

As part of the best practices, 60 per cent said they were now doing video chats around the vehicle; 57 per cent were actively encouraging customers to use online tools; 47 per cent of dealers let customers know of the at-home delivery option for vehicle delivery; and 45 per cent started using video deliveries or product presentations.

Within the dealership business, 56 per cent of dealers said they were cutting back on specific budget items and expenses; 55 per cent reduced trading hours; 42 per cent offered pick up and delivery of service vehicles from customers’ homes; and 31 per cent offered online payment for vehicle servicing.

The effect of the virus will also extend into the future, the research said.

“COVID-19 will have a profound impact on all of us for a long time and some said that may be in excess of 10 years,” it said.

“How we consume anything, how we shop, how we work, how we connect with others — none of it will ever be the same — at least not for a long time.”

But Cox’s research found that there was a lot to be done to educate, train and drive penetration within the dealership.

“At-home solutions are also here to stay — not because of long-term health concerns but because consumers have tasted ‘real convenience’.”

It also found that while one-in-10 people surveyed said they are considering a reduction in the number of cars in the household, many more are now considering the purchase of a vehicle.

By Neil Dowling