What does a “new normal” look like for automotive?
The most recent data from May and early June 2020 suggest that a modest recovery in the auto industry is ongoing, with market-wide shoppers in May 2020 rising 24 percent and sales rising 57 percent from the record lows of the previous month. Both metrics are still down from 2019 and are below seasonally typical levels, but as various states trial-run reopening sections of public life, we are watching to see how auto consumers shift their behaviors and how brands adapt to meet them as we all reestablish new habits and norms.
May 2020 marked yet another month of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it also saw a shift towards expanded reopening efforts across the country. As we reopen, we’ll begin to understand what our “new normal” will look like, and this evolving understanding will continue to inform our behavior until concrete solutions such as reliable and effective treatments for the coronavirus are found.
In May 2020, we saw both in-market new vehicle shoppers and sales bounce back from April 2020 lows, yet remain lower than is typically expected in a month that perennially sees elevated incentives, shopper interest, and sales. The recovery was likely driven by the preliminary easing of lockdowns coupled with the successful rollout of near record-level incentives and customer support programs across automotive brands and dealers.
Across industries, brands should expect an ongoing process of trial and error as they monitor and predict the ways potential buyers in their sectors renegotiate the nature and terms of their participation—and automotive is no different. Will fear of infection through public transit, ride sharing, and air travel fuel a shift towards more personal and private forms of mobility? The summer road trip to an isolated, outdoor location is surely growing in appeal for some families contending with the stagnation of three months stuck in their homes. Will they now move to purchase a car when they had not previously planned to do so? Or perhaps jump on a new purchase earlier than expected?
Automakers are responding to these concerns about close contact by beginning to launch efforts to adopt fully-online purchase and home delivery capabilities across their brands and dealer networks. The question remains – is there an appetite for online vehicle shopping and at-home delivery? We likely won’t see an answer for several months.
Early data suggests there is some interest in at least considering online purchase and home delivery options. Consider the initiatives by the General Motors and Fiat Chrysler groups, shown above. Buy.gm.com is reached through their “Shop. Click. Drive.” program upon initiating the “buying process,” which includes calculating loans, finalizing details, and contacting dealers for further discussions and delivery set up. While this program has existed for quite some time, it’s increased functionality and end-to-end coverage is in response to changing behavior today (the program previously did not include robust, low-contact delivery options). DriveFCA is a similar program, albeit a more recent domain launch, offering an all-in-one site for its various brands’ shoppers to search inventory, explore financing, and get connected to dealers for delivery. GM’s site saw a 28 percent month-over-month boost in unique visitation in May 2020, coincident with the return of some shoppers and buyers to the market – yet these folks were exploring this new emerging online buying platform. Likewise, DriveFCA saw a 14 percent increase month-over-month since its first month online in April 2020.
Visitation to Ford’s online shopping domain, shown above at the overall and inventory-specific level, is another example of this slow, but emerging interest in fully digital vehicle shopping and delivery services. Shop.ford.com is several years old, but with the onset of COVID-19 the brand deployed new efforts to expand the service to cover home delivery and has incentivized dealers who joined the program. Though visitation to the site overall has waned year-over year (down 13 percent), it did see some recovery from April 2020 as well. By contrast, visitation to inventory search pages on the site—an important lower-funnel KPI indicating more serious shopping—was up 17 percent from April 2020 and up 29 percent from May 2019. Visitors actively exploring inventory are more likely to consider a purchase in the near-term, fueled perhaps by the availability of this online delivery functionality.
The automotive industry is situated to be influenced in opposing directions by various pandemic-related consumer trends. On one hand, many people still rely on cars for transportation to essential activities for themselves, their families and their jobs, and we could see even more people move to purchase personal vehicles as a safe alternative to other forms of mobility. Yet concurrently, the economic slowdown and widespread job loss may curtail spending on larger purchases (like vehicles) for many families and individuals who are impacted. The emerging question, then, is whether automakers can reach enough consumers, through incentives and worry-free shopping and purchasing opportunities, to convince the shifting pool of potential buyers that acquiring a car right now is both financially tenable and safe from risk of infection. We will continue to monitor how consumers are responding to these efforts in the coming months by assessing whether interest continues to grow for these (and any new) delivery program sites and evaluating funnel retention and KPI activity to understand the seriousness of these shoppers.
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