Vroom boom: the rise of online car buying

While most other industries went digital years ago, the car industry seemed to stall at ‘Autotrader’. Has it taken a pandemic to shift it into the 21st century?

A bad year in general for cars…

It’s not hard to see why UK car sales plummeted in 2020, reaching the lowest level since 1992. During the first lockdown, showrooms and dealerships were closed, and throughout the year there were restrictions on travel, and massive economic uncertainty for consumers.

… but a good one for the online brands

Of course, that’s not to say there was zero demand for cars during the pandemic. With public transport a no-go, air travel banned and car shares challenged, people wanted their own set of wheels as a safe way to travel – whether for a supermarket shop or a staycation. And this proved to be the tipping point for a fresh pack of online car-buying disruptors.

Online buying, but not like before

Until fairly recently, ‘online car buying’ would bring to mind AutoTrader – basically a traditional dealership online. The new kind is different though. Brands like Cazoo and Cinch offer an end-to-end online service, with home delivery of your new car, plus virtual tours and seven-day no-quibble returns replacing the conventional test drive.


It has other benefits too

Cinch’s decision to use the ultra-likeable (and uber current) celeb, Rylan Clark-Neal to advertise their brand shows they’re aiming at a very different demographic to their old-school rivals. Showrooms and dealerships can be intimidating for the uninitiated; the likes of Rylan with his upbeat approachability makes the new online platforms – and the whole process – accessible and friendly.

Added to this, Cazoo promises that all its cars have passed a 150+ point inspection before being listed for sale; it’s their solution to the tyre-kicking under-the-bonnet checks (and gives peace of mind to non expert buyers). 


Meeting the needs of empowered consumers

This is all against a backdrop of knowledge now emboldening consumers. Just like we research the best kettles, TVs, laptops and washing machines, we can now research everything about a car online too. Factor in that cars need less maintenance and upkeep than ever before, and customers are more empowered, and freed from notorious forecourt sales patter.

The journey ahead

Car-buying comparison site Carwow found in a recent survey, that since dealerships re-opened after the first lockdown, 43% of their UK buyers purchased a new car without visiting a showroom.

But the question is, once we get back to ‘normal’, will online take over from traditional forecourt purchase? Perhaps not; according to Carwow, two thirds of customers said they’d still visit a dealership once social distancing is over. So maybe the real opportunity for growth is the ‘Rylan’ angle – and brands should double down on it being a safe, friendly space for trepidatious buyers and non-experts. Would we buy a car online? Cazoo yeah we would…

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