The numbers seem to speak for themselves: Despite all the talk about electric vehicles, Americans largely seem uninterested in buying them.
But a new mystery-shopper study suggests soft EV sales are at least in part the result of dealerships steering customers away from EVs and toward mainstream models the showroom staffers feel more comfortable selling.
“This lack of support for the EV shopper lessens the likelihood that they will make the decision to go electric” says Todd Markusic, vice president-research at Ipsos RDA, a market research and consulting firm that commissioned the study.
“It is surprising that consumers often were not offered an EV test drive, a key experience that showcases the uniqueness of its performance benefits,” he says. “Most of the time the consumer had to request one.”
Of the nearly 17.5 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year, 79,915 were battery-electric vehicles and 71,329 were plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, according to WardsAuto data. Sales are better for those segments this year, with 88,662 EV and 79,615 PHEV deliveries through November.
The study – conducted in the 10 largest all-electric-vehicle markets in the U.S. – found some dealers believed consumers must be prepared to compromise on their EV shopping-experience expectations. That included expecting limited or even no inventory to physically evaluate or select from. Clearly, battery-electric vehicles don’t take center stage at most dealerships.
Rather than search for or order the desired vehicle, some dealerships pressed shoppers to accept what is available, including hybrids (that had sales of 341,792 last year) or gas-engine alternatives.
“Attempting to switch a shopper away from their EV interest is not only damaging the likelihood of a potential sale, but it can damage the trust a consumer has with the dealership,” says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, Ipsos RDA’s senior vice president.
Mystery shoppers report a lack of EV marketing materials displayed or made available. Moreover, many dealerships that sell these vehicles lack designated salespeople to answer shopper questions and address concerns.
At traditional-brand dealerships that sell EVs alongside other vehicles, the EV sales process often is undifferentiated from the traditional process.
Ipsos RDA calls the typical EV sales process passive. It’s also inconsistent. Consumers shopping for a specific EV model may have distinctly different experiences from one dealership to another of the same brand. One dealership may provide education and support, while another store may do neither, the study says.
“The lack of consistency in the EV shopping experience, even within the same brand, highlights the need for better product knowledge and support to effectively position electric vehicles with the U.S. automotive consumer,” Markusic says.
Not surprisingly, mystery shopping went well at Tesla outlets that offer an EV-only product line.
A previous mystery-shopping study (by Pied Piper Management) knocked many Tesla salespeople for acting like “museum curators” because they answered questions but failed to ask for the sale, a fundamental step in auto retailing.
But Ipsos RDA lauds Tesla sales staffers for exuding a passion for EVs, displaying knowledge of them and helping consumers make informed decisions.
The firm did its study in September and October. The mystery shopping covered 11 battery-electric models and 141 EV-selling dealerships. The study’s undercover shoppers completed a scorecard that includes up to 50 sales-process attributes.
“Many OEMs have already introduced electric vehicles to their product lineups, and there will be many more in the coming years,” VanNieuwkuyk says. “The results of this study can assist OEMs and dealerships in establishing an informative and supportive sales process focused on the unique elements of electric-vehicle ownership.”