What Car? Insight weekly update – week nine

Opportunity knocks… but is everyone capitalising on it?

This is the ninth in a series of weekly updates for industry colleagues from Rachael Prasher, managing director of What Car? and Haymarket Automotive.

The dealership doors are open. The relief is palpable and the data suggests that the wheels to the so-called automotive economy are turning again. That’s important, because the scale of the issues facing the industry remains enormous – something I expect us to get a reminder of when tomorrow’s new car registrations figures for May are released, with only a slight improvement on April’s 97% fall expected.

It is important that those figures don’t shroud the industry in gloom; I write this off the back of the best weekend of traffic on whatcar.com since lockdown began, with our overall page views moving closer to those of pre-lockdown levels of a – until then – strong early March.

Perhaps most significantly, page views to our New Car Buying platform are running close to our peak levels during February; interest among car buyers wanting to investigate deals and talk to retailers is booming. Those who are engaging most enthusiastically are selling cars. Opportunities are out there now.

PENT-UP DEMAND: Interest from consumers wanting to link with franchised dealers through our online New Car Buying platform is now generating more page views than in early March

Indeed, the number of visitors to our site with the sole purpose of researching and buying their next car is now 53% higher than at the start of lockdown on 23 March.

That means, as of today, nearly six in 10 are actively in the purchase funnel; they are already on their journey and moving towards the business end of things.

For the past months, like everyone else, we’ve watched consumer intent steadily shift in the opposing direction since traffic and enquiries to our dealers fell off the proverbial cliff. At first, visitors sought general information around Covid-19 and its impact on motoring – from MOT tests to finance commitments and maintaining their cars.

Slowly, they turned their attention to post-lockdown. Some continued to try to buy during it. We can see in our New Car Buying data that some were successful but many were not. Invariably, the only blocker was – sadly – unpreparedness from dealers and manufacturers to answer the call and manage the process.

Arguably the surest sign of that intent is the 140% leap in buyers visiting whatcar.com to get the latest Target Price information since the start of April. People are thinking about numbers, not just models. Deals, not just window shopping. Many are hopeful that there will be good deals to be had, although our discounting data suggests that won’t always be the case.

Naturally, the scramble towards end-to-end online selling has dominated much of the conversation in recent weeks. However, if the role of the dealer in this process was ever in doubt, the fact that 73.3% still say they would prefer to buy in person, in a showroom – albeit a socially distant one – is there for all to see.

And while the ‘click and collect’ schemes rolled out by the likes of Renault are to be applauded, 47% of in-market buyers still want to take ownership by visiting the dealer. The ritual is still very much with us.

For a couple of weeks now, the proportion of in-market buyers looking to complete on a purchase quickly has been steady at 40%.

However, the horizon continues to look a concern. Those intending to buy in six months’ time is down 63% compared with the last week of March. That means just one in five are now looking that far into the distance.

I’ve repeatedly said the interpretation of this figure is open for debate. It still is. It could signal that a slump is on the horizon, or that the easing of lockdown simply means buyers are able to plan more short-term – or it could be a combination of both.

REVIEWS TRAFFIC: Growth in traffic to our reviews pages started to recover later and more slowly than elsewhere on site. That has accelerated – and is a key indicator of future sales

My concern is amplified by the fact that, while recovery in our reviews traffic has accelerated – and is now growing faster than other areas of the site that bounced back earlier – relatively, it continues to lag behind in the return to past numbers.

This week will be crucial in seeing if that acceleration continues or flattens. I believe this traffic is an indicator of how many people are at some point in the new car buying journey; if it is subdued, it suggests that there are longer-term concerns over the size of the pipeline of potential buyers.

Whatever it indicates, it underlines the importance of every dealer and manufacturer coming out of the starting blocks as if they’re on the final bend of a 400-metre race. Capitalising now will clearly deliver benefits for the longer term.

It’s going to be a buyers’ market. Pent-up demand does not mean desperation; I personally think it means the customers out there will be more knowledgeable, more willing to play hardball and more eager to find a good deal, even if it means switching brands, and our polling backs up those assertions.

The most searched-for cars on whatcar.com this week

Is there a new car launch that is bigger than that of a new Volkswagen Golf? Certainly, our readers don’t think so, and with our reviewers finally able to test in very controlled circumstances, we have been able to review the latest model in the UK, sending it to the top of our most-read chart for the second consecutive week.

Elsewhere, the peaking of interest in electric cars during lockdown has been superseded by research into more mainstream models, with the popular Ford Fiesta and Mercedes-Benz A-Class moving into the top 10. Only the Kia e-Niro remains as an all-electric representative in the top 10 this week.

SUVs continue to show well, too, with the BMW X3 taking a jump up the rankings as a result of renewed interest in the past seven days.

New Car Buying: now free to use until the end of September

We have extended our free offer to franchised dealers and OEMs to use our New Car Buying platform and lead management service until the end of September – with no tie-ins for new users, meaning there is no risk.

We recognise that our business can only thrive when retail is thriving again, and that is why we are offering leads from our in-market audience for free.

Current users include Ford Retail, JCT 600, Hendy Group, Marshall Motor Group, Snows, Vertu Motors, Vindis and Waylands Automotive.

If you’re interested in taking advantage, you can contact our support team on 020 8267 4138 or email us at support@whatcar.com.

Rachael Prasher
Managing director, What Car? and Haymarket Automotive