Car shoppers 25 to 39 years old are trashing the traditional path to a vehicle purchase, according to a new study by Incisent Labs.
The old funnel theory of buying, in which a shopper continuously narrows his vehicle choices before purchase, doesn't apply to Gen X and Gen Y vehicle buyers, said Pat Ryan Jr., founder of Incisent Labs and dealer inventory tools MAX and FirstLook.
Instead, younger vehicle shoppers on average start their shopping online with three or four car models in mind, then add two vehicles to the mix as they comparison shop, the study shows.
Those shoppers are still in play and exploring options much later in the shopping process than was previously thought, Ryan said. For dealers, that means presenting inventory on dealer Web sites and third-party shopping sites with engaging text and plenty of photos to differentiate the listings from those of rivals, he said.
The path more resembles a well-fed python digesting prey in its midsection than a funnel, Ryan said. "The buying funnel is dead," he said.
Linda Bartman, chief marketing officer at Cars.com, said car shopping is anything but linear.
"Some shoppers may start off with a few vehicles in mind, expand their consideration set as they learn more and then narrow it back down," Bartman wrote in an e-mail.
Even a poor test drive or negative online review can send consumers back to the drawing board, she said. Cars.com is a leading online vehicle shopping site.
Ryan's MAX tool helps dealers automatically write and distribute used-car classified ads, while FirstLook helps them price and stock used vehicles.
The Incisent Labs study also showed that young shoppers tend to focus their online research relatively narrowly on listings and easy-to-digest analysis, such as top 10 lists that third-party sites offer.
Full-length articles and vehicle reviews often are passed over for lists that economically offer comparison data and statistics.
The research was not "for a book report," Ryan said of one study participant's comments.
Incisent Labs' findings are based on watching the shopping habits of more than a thousand car shoppers on various Web sites as well as in-depth interviews, Ryan said.
The study showed that Google and dealer brand marketing are leading younger vehicle shoppers to dealership Web sites.
About 39 percent of shoppers visited the sites directly online by using the Web address of the dealership's site, Ryan said.
About 38 percent went to dealership Web sites by clicking on a link in the organic, nonadvertising portion of a Google search and another 10 percent from a Google adword search, which are paid links in the shaded top portion of a Google search page.