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Consumers who bought vehicles earlier this year were twice as likely to think prices were much lower than expected, according to opinion polling.

Vehicle Shoppers Say Prices Up, Selection Down

A CarGurus survey indicates how the pandemic has affected how, when and why consumers shop for cars.

Auto consumers of late perceive vehicles as costing more than did people who were in the market last spring. Today’s shoppers also see vehicle selection as leaner than did earlier buyers.

Those are among findings of the latest CarGurus COVID-19 Sentiment Study.

The rolling survey looks at how the pandemic has affected auto consumer sentiment over the months and how shoppers have reacted in terms of how, when and why they car-shop.

November research results compare with CarGurus survey findings from April and June. The polling topics include vehicle inventory, affordability, digital retail and how ride-sharing and public transit have taken a hit as many people bridle at using such transportation services during a pandemic.

Consumers who bought vehicles from March through June were twice as likely to think prices were much lower than expected when compared with those who bought from July through November (31% vs. 16%).

That perception indeed is a reality.

“There were better deals back then,” Madison Gross (below, left) tells WardsAuto. She is director-consumer for CarGurus, an online automotive marketplace.

Automakers offered hefty consumer incentives in the spring to spur softening sales. Those enticements have since abated. Surveyed shoppers of late assume the great deals during the early days of the pandemic are over.

More than one in four expect prices to be higher, the study says. Consequently, 62% say they are considering more than one brand and 42% are considering more than one type of model.

Selection of affordable vehicles is a top concern among buyers going forward, with 46% of recent shoppers saying they feel less confident in their ability to find a vehicle that meets their budget.

Earlier shoppers also noted better vehicle selection on dealer lots. Eight percent of the March-through-June buyers said vehicle selection was worse than expected, compared with 17% of buyers from July through November.

That reflects automakers still playing catch-up from when COVID-19 shut down vehicle production for two months in the spring.

The industry is expected to sell 3 million to 4 million fewer vehicles this year compared with 2019. But the latest CarGurus COVID-19 Sentiment Study reveals “a silver lining for the auto industry amid the pandemic,” says Gross.

“Over the course of the year, we have seen car shoppers delay but not cancel their purchases, a shift from public transit and ride-hailing towards vehicle ownership and an increase in openness around buying a car online.

Madison gross formal_2.jpg“When coupled with the automotive industry’s current high demand and low supply, it is likely for these trends to continue into next year.”

Shoppers say their top reasons for delayed purchases involve financial security: 51% said they are uncertain about their personal financial situation, and 45% are uncertain about the general economic situation.

As the pandemic continues, auto consumers increasingly are considering digital retail options. Before the pandemic, 35% of respondents said they were open to buying a vehicle online. That has increased to 60%.

That openness to online car shopping has not wavered since June (60%) or April (61%) when the pandemic led to the temporary closing of dealership sales departments in many states.

Even though shoppers are becoming more open to digital retail, only 41% said they would turn to it entirely.  

The majority “don’t want to skip the test drive,” Gross says, although there’s some futuristic talk of dealerships one day offering virtual demo drives.

Online shoppers are more likely to use digital retail tools for price negotiations (61%) and online financing (52%), according to the November survey of 796 shoppers who plan to buy a vehicle this year or next.

Basically, there are two types of automotive buyers: those who need a vehicle and those who want one.

Alluding to the latter group, Gross talks about “a resurgence of a love of a vehicle.”

That’s reflected in 43% of polled people using their vehicle as a means of escape and fun.

Driving around with no particular place to go apparently offers benefits, psychological and otherwise, during a pandemic that limits so many other activities.

Steve Finlay is a retired WardsAuto senior editor.


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