The stereotype of the pushy, aggressive and untrustworthy car salesperson remains in the minds of many consumers to this day. Despite significant progress by dealers and car companies to improve the experience, nearly 90 percent of consumers dislike buying a new car according to recent surveys. Purchasing a new vehicle with the latest design, technology and safety features should be something that creates anticipation and excitement. It’s clear the industry has more work to do.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every industry, including automotive. It has faced significant sales declines that are slowly recovering and is a traditional high-touch industry that has had to adapt to new realities. But like it has done throughout its 100-year history, the industry’s resiliency and entrepreneurial spirit have come through.
The COVID-19 effect
In recent years, dealers and car companies were well on their way to transforming the customer experience and making it more efficient, digital and transparent. The pandemic has accelerated that process and consumers are on board as well.
A recent study by Urban Science and the Harris Poll in June 2020 found that 61 percent of consumers agree the entire vehicle purchase process will change forever due to COVID-19, and more than three-quarters (78 percent) see some benefit to shopping for a new vehicle entirely online versus in-person.
Car companies have responded. New digital tools allow for the entire purchase to be completed online. More transparent pricing policies have reduced negotiation anxiety and financing. Paperwork, trade-in valuation and every other step in the process can now be done digitally. At Hyundai for instance, all of our dealers now offer this capability on their websites.
But who would buy a car without even seeing it? There are solutions for that, too. The resources for independent and credible research have never been more robust. Virtual reality and video walk-arounds (live and taped) allow consumers a more realistic view of the vehicle digitally. At Hyundai, we offer a remote test drive where we will bring the vehicle to the customer for evaluation. And once a purchase decision is made, in most places we’ll deliver the car right to the customers’ home. All of this is modernizing the automotive retail experience and keeping everyone safe.
Safety precautions at retail
Even with more flexibility in buying a new car, there are still many people who want to go to the dealer and kick the tires.
Like many other high-touch industries, the in-person experience has changed too. Dealers are altering their processes and putting a variety of safeguards in place. This includes more frequent cleaning of the facility and vehicles, social distancing, wearing masks and thorough training for their staff. There are also more options for service and maintenance, with many dealers offering a pick-up and drop off option.
At Hyundai, we introduced a program called Clean Assurance. These are health and safety guidelines that customers can expect at dealers across the country. This is something dealerships are taking seriously and ensuring the in-person experience is putting safety at the forefront.
There are predictions the pandemic will increase personal vehicle ownership as people consider it less risky than public transportation. With the potential increase in demand, customers will have more flexibility than ever.
While some new car companies are pursuing a direct sales model and the internet dramatically changing the car-buying experience, dealerships will continue to have an important role. The direct connection dealers have with customers to navigate a sometimes complex purchase, the impact they have on their local communities, and the ability to offer high-quality service are still critically important and here to stay. The difference being that dealers will be more digital, transparent and flexible in selling vehicles to consumers who have new expectations about retail.
Transforming a traditional business model is never easy, but the automotive industry is ready to meet the new realities, expectations and opportunities of a COVID-19 world and whatever comes next.
Michael Stewart is Senior Group Manager, corporate and marketing communications, at Hyundai Motor America. He is a USC graduate and a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.