If you felt exhausted and annoyed after buying your last car, you may have wondered why you can't just go online and buy a car as you might a television or iPad. But while the auto industry is moving in that direction, new research suggests that car buyers still yearn to get behind the wheel.
Not that consumers enjoy the experience -- not by a long shot. Only 17 out more than 4,000 car buyers surveyed in the study for Autotrader, the nation's biggest online car advertising site, said they liked the current process of purchasing a vehicle. That process has to change but is still likely to involve dealerships, said Autotrader president Jared Rowe at a presentation this week just before the opening of the New York Auto Show.
What the web has done is allow car buyers to become much better informed than they were a decade ago, Rowe said. People now spend an average of 16.7 hours researching what car they want and what the price ought to be, according to Autotrader. Some dealerships will even negotiate the price by email before you ever set foot in the showroom.
But the study shows that even the best-informed shoppers want certain hands-on experiences. Here's what most people are looking for as they're shopping for a car:
- Test Drives: Autotrader found that 88 percent of those surveyed insisted on a test drive before they would buy a car. This is only common sense since it is almost impossible to know if you will really like a vehicle until you have driven it. But car shoppers resent the pressure they often get from salespeople riding along on the test drive. Rather, they would prefer riding with a product specialist. Rowe compared an ideal situation to an Apple retail store where you can ask expert store employees about the iPads and iPhones without any pressure to buy.
- Price negotiations: Just over half of consumers still want to negotiate the price of their car because they do not believe they get the best deal with flat-rate or "no-haggle" pricing. The study quotes one recent car buyer as saying, "Flat-rate pricing is a good place to start negotiating from." Clearly some people like fixed-rate pricing, however. Companies like CarMax and AutoNation have been very successful with no-haggle pricing. And independent enterprises like TrueCar.com also eliminate negotiations by showing you recent sales prices for a given model and competing fixed offers from competing dealers.
- Financing: This is where consumers get most frustrated and where they can be sold add-ons that may offset the good deal they got. The average buyer spends an hour with the finance specialist at a dealership, when ideally they would like to spend only 90 minutes for the whole sales process, Autotrader found. It suggests that allowing consumers to complete paperwork online without sales pressure would increase satisfaction. Better yet, get approved financing from your bank or credit union before you go into the dealership and you can avoid most of this encounter.
Even now, some car buyers can get closer to the buying online ideal. If you can afford a Tesla, you can go into one of the stores and get an explanation of the all-electric car. Then you can go online and order the car configured as you want it. And some forward-looking dealers have Internet departments where quoted prices can be lower than in the showroom. The online department also may look for cars not already in the dealer's inventory. Often these dealers will even deliver a car, sometimes to buyers who have never come to the dealership.
So if you want to keep control of the car buying process, start by going to a dealership for a test drive only and state clearly you are not ready to buy. Then, if you get financing approved, you can shop among dealerships to find the best price.