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June 2019

The change in car buying from offline to online - Combat or embrace?

Written by Lemay Rogers
Technology and Trends

In this ever-evolving digital world, consumers are heavily empowered by online research.  Information is available at the tips of our fingers, and our propensity to browse online is only set to increase.  According to UPS, four in ten purchases are made using only an online channel for searching and buying.

Automotive brands and retailers have traditionally relied on footfall and the volume of people visiting showrooms to drive sales, but similar to other bricks and mortar retailers, they are rapidly experiencing an evolution in the purchasing journey from the rise of online research.

As one multi-brand car retailer told us, “Visits to car dealerships pre-purchase have decreased from 4.8 to 1.8 visits. So, there is more responsibility than ever before on manufacturers and showroom owners to make each consumer visit memorable and seamless.”

The car buying landscape has changed

The way that consumers engage and interact with a car dealerships will obviously have a lot to do with brand loyalty, but with all of this information so easily accessible, there is potential for them to be influenced by the online experience, in fact a Walker study found that by the year 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator – and of course, that’s something that we experience online as well as off.  38% of people will now leave a website if they find the layout unattractive.

According to Millward Brown Digital and Polk 2015, of the 24 touch points of purchasing a car, 19 have now become digital, with buyers carrying out 90% of their research online before visiting a showroom.  This has led to a change in the role of the automotive salesperson, who now needs to act as a trusted consultant who can offer persuasive advice, not only on car specifications but also on lifestyle suitability to suit the consumer's persona.

One single-brand retailer told us “People don’t come to fact find generally, their shopping list used to be 10 or 12 cars, now it’s 2 or 3 because they’re much better informed.”

car buying and the power of online research

Customers arrive prepared

Car buyers now arrive at dealerships armed with a wealth of information.  They’ve already narrowed down their options and have everything to hand to make their final purchase decision.  With the volume of showroom visitor numbers seemingly set to remain low, it’s now up to automotive brands and retailers to take control of whatever elements they can to make a sale.  

Two critical areas that can help here: emphasising brand impact across multiple channels to attract and retain consumers; and making the best impression to increase dwell time.

Recognising the importance and value of a seamless multi-channel experience

‘Total Retail’ is a phrase that was introduced by PwC as part of their Global Consumer Insights Surveys.  It stresses the need to create a unified brand story across all channels to ensure a consistently superior customer experience.  In essence, it’s about taking customers on a consistent brand journey across all touch points, online and offline.

From our research, it’s clear that automotive brands are recognising the importance and value of providing a seamless multi-channel customer experience.  The customer needs continuity in their journey from researching online to visiting a showroom.

Expectations need to be met and exceeded.  The exciting and sometimes daunting experience of buying a car really needs to be brought to life for the shopper. For the modern retail brand, it’s about understanding every step of the journey and using immersive, multi-sensory levers in the physical showroom.  A multi-sensory experience, with targeted visual, tactile, auditory and scent activations delivered as a fully immersive brand experience that can capture consumer hearts and minds, and ultimate convert browsers to customers, now and for years to come.

Enhancing the physical showroom space

The physical car showroom is still a fundamental asset.  It gives customers an exciting, immersive experience that just can’t be experienced online.  It’s in the showroom where emotional and physical experiences converge. Research confirms that we are 100 times more likely to remember something we smell than something we see, hear or touch.

Creating sensory signatures across multiple senses in an integrated way can multiply the effects of individual sensory elements to create a bigger impression, known as the multiplier effect, or superadditivity.  Measurements demonstrate that if you trigger two senses, brand value and bonding can increase by 30% and if trigger three senses it increases by 70%. There’s a lot to be said for the impact that can be made by getting your visual aesthetic, showroom fragrance and music to work in harmony.  Add to that the feeling of touching the gleaming new metallic paint job of a brand new hot-hatch whilst been offered a delicious cup of espresso and the feelings of warmth that the consumer can feel towards your showroom and your brand will be rising and rising.

According to Autotrader, 54% of consumers would buy from a dealership that offers their preferred experience, even if it didn’t have the lowest price.  Whilst carrying out our research, one particular multi-brand car retailer was very clear on the need for a great showroom experience, saying “Going into a dealership and having a nice waiting area, nice coffee and croissants or paninis – it makes it more pleasurable for busy individuals and it needs to be a nice environment. The environment of a dealership is essential.”

Unlocking the power of scent in car showrooms

Used correctly in the showroom, an effective scent experience has the power to attract a higher footfall, encourage longer dwell times, and improve brand perception and customer loyalty.  Our research has uncovered the fact that leveraging the sense of smell significantly increases consumer involvement in experiences by a margin of 38%.

Professor Charles Spence, MA, PhD, Professor of Experimental Psychology and Head of the Cross Modal research laboratory at Oxford University believes that effective use of scent in retail spaces is probably the single most cost-effective intervention that can be delivered when it comes to enhancing the multisensory brand offering.  Simply put, scent helps to make customers linger for longer – according to Professor Anla Stohr, that can be up to 54% longer!

We’ve discovered that the initial impact of scent in the first five seconds of a new experience has the power to significantly have an impact before any visual role is fully established.  Additionally, the effect of scent on emotional involvement deepens as dwell time in an environment continues if all the senses are in harmony with each other. It seems that our sense of smell is the first sensory cue that supports our orientation in a new space before the visual role is fully established.  Fundamentally, our noses (or more precisely, our olfactory receptor cells) give us that first impression, and it’s also what makes it last. Olfaction really is one of our most powerful senses.

With scent, there is an even greater opportunity for automotive brands to create a multi-sensory experience that captivates consumers and stimulates an emotional response, whether they are behind the wheel test driving or walking into a showroom to see a brand’s car for the first time.

If you’d like to find out more, please download a copy of our Ultimate Car Showroom Experience, which contains some great insights about how you can ‘drive’ more sales for your showroom.

Download the Guide


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Lemay Rogers

Lemay Rogers

Lémay Rogers is the Marketing Manager for Rentokil Initial's Sub-Saharan Africa region. When not contributing to the Initial blog, she is the custodian of all things Marketing for Rentokil Initial Sub-Saharan Africa. As a frequent traveller AND mother of a pre-schooler, she is all too aware of how easily germs can travel with us, from one location to another and then back to our homes. Follow Lémay on Twitter and LinkedIn for practical advice on good hygiene practices, both at home and in the workplace.

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