Consumer confidence around car buying more than three times higher than during first lockdown

Rachael Prasher is Managing Director of Haymarket Automotive, comprising What Car?, Autocar, Classic & Sports Car and Car Aftermarket Trader (CAT). These insights are taken from a poll of almost 3000 visitors to last weekend and What Car?’s web data, and uses comparative data taken from weekly consumer behaviour and trend polling taken since last March.

Consumer confidence around buying a car is up more than threefold compared with the first lockdown, despite the majority of the UK now under lockdown once more and showrooms again closed to physical sales, according to our latest research.

Our latest industry study of 2939 in-market buyers, carried out last weekend, revealed that 20.4% are looking to buy a vehicle in the next four weeks, while 24.6% are set to purchase a car within one to three months’ time.

Together these timeframes account for nearly half of all the responses.

This compares very favourably with the first lockdown last March, when just 3.5% were looking to buy within four weeks, and 8% between one and three months. This data proved painfully accurate; sales were down by 97.3% in April. We then predicted that a bottleneck of pent-up demand would follow as confidence returned – and we saw this happen in July.

Our consumer insights proved accurate, then, and I continue to have a high level of trust in our current findings.

Unlike the first lockdown, consumer confidence is significantly higher. Encouragingly, 54.0% of in-market buyers said they were NOT looking to postpone their purchase until lockdown restrictions are lifted, but will buy regardless of showroom closures.

Online buying boosts consumer confidence in the market

One of the key drivers of sales and consumer confidence has been the growing investment made in online selling platforms.

Since April, a number of new virtual showrooms have been launched to allow buyers to view, negotiate, finance and order their next vehicle entirely online. Gradually, consumer confidence in these platforms has grown.

In our October market research, 35.2% of buyers said they would be comfortable buying their next car online. Today, that number has risen to 42.9%.

Significantly, nine out of 10 buyers also said they would be comfortable picking up their new model via a ‘Click & Collect’ type service – another novelty the industry is fast pursuing at a time when showroom doors must remain closed.

Web traffic shows buyers researching

A final barometer telling me that we should remain optimistic for the future comes from trends emerging in our own online traffic. Traditionally, this picks up from Boxing Day and surges through to the end of the plate-change month of March.

It was hard to know what to expect this year, especially with the negative news and increased social restrictions announced in the run up to Christmas, but come Boxing Day the surge was there again: between then and lockdown being announced, user numbers across the site surged 7.5% up against our previously record-breaking year-on-year figures.

Following last Monday’s lockdown announcement they dipped a little to track up 5.5% year-on-year through to Friday, but last weekend they bounced again, up 9%. If you are an optimist like me, you have to hope that the announcement of another lockdown was the low point of at least this first quarter, and that the upward trend continues.

There are trends within this that are noteworth; traffic to individual car reviews is down 20%, in line with a reduction in search in Google, but traffic to Top 10 lists (such as the best family SUVs, for example) is up 20%. This perhaps points to a proportion of buyers being earlier in their research journey than is typical at this type of year – a logical conclusion given circumstances – and offers potential for new car buying to be sustained beyond the traditional March plate change date and into subsequent months.

What’s clear is that we have strong numbers of buyers researching their next car, a growing share of buyers that is comfortable operating in an entirely digital field, and crucially, a large share of these buyers that are looking to buy their next car before the showrooms open – giving the market some much needed continuity ahead of a return to more normal times.

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