Retailers across industries have acted swiftly to open digital stores, and now, new car buyers want auto brands to do the same. Changing behavior and rising demand for a frictionless auto buying experience are revolutionizing an industry over 100 years old.

The realities of the pandemic have put a premium on personal space.

For many, getting behind the wheel is a way of taking back control.

Some are looking for a car that can double as a hotel.

Others are wary of relying on public transit and ridesharing companies to protect their health.

These changes are accelerating two major shifts in the auto industry, with implications for who buys cars and how.

Overall, people who have recently purchased a vehicle now expect to be able to buy cars online.

The newly car-curious are a valuable segment, and they're ready to take the wheel.

New Expectations

The percentage of cars sold online increased by 10X in just two years.6

New Expectations

Most shoppers say they are comfortable negotiating purchase, lease, or financing terms completely online or through a mix of online and offline channels.7

New Expectations

Recent car buyers expect more options.

New Expectations

So far, those expectations have gone unmet.

New Buyers

The first-time buyers of the pandemic research differently. More open-minded, they consider a wider range of vehicle types.10

To be ready to meet shoppers online, retailers and automakers need to consider their messaging carefully.

Machine learning can help tailor messaging to each buyer based on searches that signify what matters to them.

And automation can help deliver that message at the right time.

Understanding what people want in real time can help brands connect more meaningfully. To prove it, we conducted an experiment. Our study used elements of machine learning to tailor ad content to stated and inferred user needs, or simulated Google signals.

The ads worked.

Strong messaging built stronger relationships.

But messaging alone won't work unless new expectations are met. As emerging behavioral trends lead to new auto buying behaviors, brands will have to make sure their online retail experiences are ready to match other categories' e-commerce standards. Now is the time for those brands to bridge the digital divide.

1. Google Data, Global English, June 3, 2020–Aug. 1, 2020 vs. June 3, 2019–Aug 1, 2019.

2. Google Survey, U.S., 1,000 U.S. residents who took a road trip this year, Aug. 2020.

3. Google Data, Global English, May 6, 2020–July 4, 2020 vs. May 6, 2019–July 4, 2019.

4. PwC, Traveler Sentiment Survey, Base: 1,005. Q: Today, how would you rate the riskiness of traveling in the following ways where you may be in close proximity to others?, May 2020.

5. Google Data, ABAT: Human Truths x GCAS Auto, “From Rider to Driver,” Sept. 2020.

6. Google/Kantar, U.S., Automotive Path to Purchase, new vehicle purchasers n=519, 2018. Google/Kantar, U.S., Automotive Path to Purchase, new vehicle purchasers n=1,000. Q3: Where did you purchase your vehicle? A. Online via website or app?, 2020.

7. Google/C-Space, U.S., New Vehicle Buyers (people who are currently in-market for a vehicle or will be in the next 12 months), n=353, July 2020.

8. Google/Kantar, U.S., Automotive Path to Purchase, new vehicle purchasers n=1,000. Q: Thinking about the time after the COVID-19, how will the vehicle market and car purchase process change after the current situation has passed?, 2020.

9. Google Data, U.S., Base: Recontact Survey respondents who did research since the first survey / since stay-at-home measures began, n=343. D11. Has a dealership offered to deliver a car(s) to your home for a test drive? | D12. Have you researched having a car(s) delivered to your home for a test drive? | D12c. In general, how helpful was your at-home test drive(s) in deciding whether or not you wanted to purchase the car(s)?, May 26, 2020–June 2, 2020.

10. Google/C-Space, Survey and Interviews; Interviews conducted June 17, 2020–June 24, 2020 in DE and U.S.; Surveys conducted July 7, 2020–July 23, 2020 in AU, BR, CA, FR, DE, IN, IT, JP, MX, U.K., U.S., n=2,495.

11. Google/SKIM, U.S., Rethinking Readiness Study, Gen Pop 18+, n=4,461, March 20, 2020–April 3, 2020.

12. Google/SKIM, U.S., Rethinking Readiness Study, Gen Pop 18+, n=4,461, March 20, 2020–April 3, 2020.