Consumer Experience: The Case for Dealerships to Evolve

Analysis of the DrivingSales Consumer Experience Study

A few months ago, I presented at a NADA Super Session in San Francisco. If you were there, you’ll remember I shared highlights of our DrivingSales Consumer Experience Study, an extensive 16-month research initiative exploring how consumers shop and buy cars today.

The research gives deep insight into consumer behavior and shopping preferences with dealerships and how they feel about the automotive shopping experience.

Research Methodology

In order to get the deepest insight possible, both qualitative and quantitative strategies were used.

The hallmark of the qualitative phase was the use of ethnography, which is the study of people in their natural environments. Behavioral scientists conducted in-home visits with participants to observe their car-shopping and research methods.

Afterward, they accompanied participants to dealerships to observe their shopping and interaction with dealership staff. In a few cases, participants actually purchased cars. Both the in-home and dealership observations were followed by short interviews by the scientists.

Webcam interviews and mobile geo-tracking were also conducted. The latter involves pinging shoppers on their cell phones as they were leaving a dealership and interviewing them about the dealership experience.

Findings from the qualitative phase were incorporated into a quantitative survey in an effort to produce quantifiable findings. The survey was completed by 1,200 car shoppers who were within weeks of purchasing a new vehicle or had just completed a purchase.

Professional researchers know that statistically valid findings can be produced with as few as 200 people if the 200 are selected the right way. With a sample size of more than 1,200 people, our confidence level was 90%, meaning that in nine of 10 cases, the findings would be replicated to reveal the same result. This is considered very high in quantitative research.


Fast-forward to today, and we’re starting to share our findings. Most consumers are excited about the idea of owning a new car. Who isn’t? Yet despite the strong market and optimistic outlook for automotive in 2015, the process of selecting a vehicle and, in particular, doing business with a dealership generates strong negative emotions in most consumers, including stress, suspicion, and, most commonly, distrust of dealerships.

Consumers want the process of buying a car to be easier, less stressful, and more transparent. Most important of all, they need to trust the dealer they buy from. For progressive dealerships, this is a huge opportunity to evolve their operations and sales processes to appeal to more customers and differentiate themselves from their competitors.

The following are highlights of what we learned.

Opportunity Cost to Dealers

About 56% of buyers agreed that they delayed their new car purchase because they feel the dealership process is so difficult.

Stated differently, more than half of consumers delay their purchase because they say doing business with us is difficult, meaning that if we continue to conduct business as usual, it will start to cost us.

Distrust Drives a Big Disconnect

Less than 1% said they expect a hassle-free experience. This perception of hassle impacts their interaction with a dealership in many ways, including, for a large group, visiting the dealership website.

Many consumers view the OEM or third-party sites as more trustworthy. From the start, many are keeping us at arm’s length because of mistrust.

Traditional Steps to the Sale Are Killing Opportunities

Our traditional steps to the sale repel many consumers out of our stores altogether. People want to shop for cars their way and not be forced into a process that is controlled by us.

Only 4% of consumers visit their first dealership with the intent to buy a car. In fact, many visit a dealership when it’s closed to look at cars on the lot and not be bothered by what they feel are high-pressure sales tactics.

I know business is booming now. We’re all doing really well. So why change anything?

Because the time to change is when business is good, and not when you’re hurting. Progressive dealer groups like Sonic Automotive are already transitioning to new consumer-experience models that cater to car shoppers in a way that builds trust, increases transparency, and most important to us, is profitable.

It’s an exciting time to be a dealer. Business is great and all forecasts point to a bright 2015. But the time to evolve and continue to thrive into the next decade and beyond is now. Are you ready?

For more information about the DrivingSales Consumer Experience Study, go to

Jared Hamilton, founder and CEO of, is often described as one part dealer operator and one part tech geek. He grew up working at his father’s dealerships in the Silicon Valley, attended NADA’s Dealer Candidate Academy and NADA’s Advanced Education Program at Babson College, and studied automotive marketing and management at Northwood University. He has more than 10 years of dealership management experience in addition to his award-winning entrepreneurial record.

Jared Hamilton


  1. Avatar
    William Phillips May 21, 2015

    Flaws in this article are many, remedied by more time spent closer to the true battle ground dealers face today. A liberal government that destroys small businesses by over taxation and crushing legal pursuits allowed by opportunistic left politicians are real issues, not consumers needing us to change.

    1. (Research Methodology) First of all any research done on subjects who know they are being studied is flawed.

    2. (Findings) Stresses of the car buying experience are and always will be, despite anything a dealer does, and its is caused by the size and level of transaction involved. Dealers don’t help, but don’t cause it all. Listen to enough calls from consumers and you will hear them do it.

    3. (opportunity cost) Some place either in this authors data, or Auto traders data someone is seriously flawed. AT study says that the showroom shopping experience has been reduced to less than 2 stores visited prior to a purchase. So just exactly what is it that is slowing down purchasing (which by the way, sales are up), is most likely data collection on the clients part, not a dealers actions.

    4. (Disconnect) The disconnect is when we study something from the outside we have NOT done enough and think we are an expert by studying those who do it. Then based our data on the ever changing consumer base who change buying patterns on silly things, like a sales tax or DMV fee hikes that amounts to minimal purchase impact.

    5. (Traditional Killing?) Chicken little the sky is not falling. How are dealers doing it wrong and getting it right? Profits and sales are up. Consumers are changing how they do what they do, but not what they do. Recently had a purchase experience at the large group pimped in this article. Wasn’t the progressive experience advertised.

    If your a dealer, you don’t do everything wrong. You may have some adjusting to do, but someone trying to hawk you something about your entire business model being wrong who has NEVER run that business model should be looked at as an opinion and nothing more.

  2. Avatar
    Citizen Mark June 03, 2015

    Me thinks, Mr. Phillips needs a vacation.


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