A new survey from Cox Automotive is suggesting that people are relatively pleased with their trips to the dealership these days — at least compared to the last few years. According to the team that’s been crunching the numbers over at Automotive News, “Buyer satisfaction with the shopping experience from the research stage through delivery dipped to 66 percent in 2021.” Back in 2020, respondents claimed they were happy 72 percent of the time. But in 2019 Cox was only getting 60 percent of shoppers to say they had an okay time buying a vehicle.
The uptick in 2020 is obvious. Showrooms were devoid of customers, production shortfalls hadn’t yet become the norm, and dealers were selling just about everything at a discount — keeping prices low until 2021 sent them into the stratosphere. However, the outlet still framed it as a win against 2019, suggesting that consumers are more satisfied with their shopping experience than before the pandemic. It also claimed that people who purchased vehicles online, the no-haggle alternative to going to a dealership to argue in a small room, tended to be happier overall.
You know, I’m frequently told by people that Automotive News just exists as an echo chamber for the industry, and articles like this are probably the reason why.
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.
Unless the typical consumer is totally out of touch with what constitutes normal vehicle pricing and inventories, this survey is kind of hard to believe. I’m prone toward believing that respondents were unsettled by the many restrictions imposed by dealerships in 2020 and just aren’t aware that they were being gouged in 2021. Cox also seemed aware of this and noted that researchers actually expected the inverse to be true.
“I just thought people were so sour on inventory challenges that that’s going to sour their experience,” explained Ton. “But that was not the case at all.”
She similarly anticipated that shoppers would become increasingly unnerved by the process of buying a car as there were now fewer vehicles to choose from and rising prices on just about everything one might find on the lot. Automotive pricing has really run away with itself, helping to stifle sales volumes while improving dealers’ monthly profits. But Ton believed that dealers shifting to digital purchase options, renewed effort to “help with financing,” and cleaner facilities (attributed to the pandemic) ultimately “made the experience tolerable, even enjoyable.”
Having spent part of my weekend touring a few showrooms before taking a trip into the snowy north, none of this makes sense to me. Salespeople were prompt and eager to greet me within seconds of my entering the lot. But inventories were meager regardless of brand, with the only constant being the number of sedans nobody appeared to want. This seemed curious, as they were the only models that were priced anywhere near what would be considered normal a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, reps laughed when I asked what kind of deal could be done regarding the price of a crossover or sport utility vehicle.
I suppose you’re dodging some of the laughter when you shop online. But the premise that this all adds up to a happier clientele doesn’t make sense unless you take pricing totally out of the equation. Plenty of cars are leaving the lot with a $7,000 premium due to the fact that inventories have remained unprecedently low and dealers have convinced people to buy now, rather than wait. Meanwhile, industry analysts have started making assertions that the chip shortage and elevated pricing will persist through 2022.
While these are clearly lean times, I have to believe we’re living in a world where the average person simply doesn’t know when they’re being taken advantage of. So much of what automakers (and dealers) want to offer moving forward has been described as experiential. But, when you look into the nuts and bolts of the situation, a lot of it appears to be new and interesting ways of bilking people out of money (e.g. subscription services, haggle-free digital transactions, charging for unfinished technology) in exchange for less-substantive goods and/or services.
As we don’t control pricing, there’s not much that can be done other than reminding people to be extra careful out there.
I’ve defaulted to sending anyone I know who is in the market for a new vehicle clips of the King of the Hill episode where Hank comes to the realization that his preferred dealer has been taking advantage of him for decades. Hank’s innocence is absolutely shattered by his family and friends when they inform him that the sticker price (top of the page) is actually for suckers. Fortunately, the subsequent series of hilarious misunderstandings leaves the Hill family a little wiser and better positioned for the future.
Sadly, our own struggles are too complicated to be wrapped up in a comical fashion in under half an hour. Similarly, the modern state of the automotive sector 15 years after Mr. Hill got shafted might actually make sticker price a relative bargain on plenty of models. But the takeaway that you should fight for yourself, rather than trust you’re not being taken advantage of, continues to ring true. You might not get a stellar deal on your next automobile. Though there’s nothing lost in trying, unless the hunt itself (and related strife) ends up costing several thousand dollars worth of your valuable time.
[Image: Fox Broadcasting Company]
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