The Urban Science study in the Tech Talk story on this page seems to confirm what many of us know: Most people still want to see a vehicle before buying it. That's obviously good news for dealers.
A comment from Darwin Automotive CEO Phillip Battista and my experience last month put into perspective both the opportunity and the disconnect in online vehicle sales.
Battista's company specializes in easing the digital sales process and letting car buyers do business when and how they want. He still doesn't think online sales of new vehicles will be the norm within the next five years.
"The average consumer still wants to test drive the car, see the color that they're buying, smell the car and experience that," Battista told us.
Used vehicles, on the other hand, could see a more rapid transformation, he said. Used buyers will do a lot more of the transaction — or perhaps all of it — without coming into a store.
"They're searching for something that's not a commodity purchase in their mind," Battista said. "I'm looking for a 2012 Ford Shelby Mustang GT convertible with a six-speed. Oh, I found one in Delaware. I'm willing to put a deposit down and buy the car as long as there's a guarantee that [if] I don't like it, I can give it back."
That "give it back" part is key.
You hear about buyers having good experiences with Carvana, which is mostly lightly used vehicles. But the company also guarantees a buyer can return the car within a week. That is critical.
As a habitual used-car shopper with a specific wish list, I typically cast a nationwide net when looking for a vehicle. After selling my daily driver this summer, I've been on a serious hunt.
Last month, the hunt took me to North Dakota. I was so enamored with a vehicle at a store there that I felt compelled to somehow secure the purchase without having to go to North Dakota. It is not logistically easy nor efficient to get from Detroit to Bismarck, N.D., and back.
The dealership advertised on its website that it would ship vehicles throughout the U.S.
I did more due diligence: The vehicle-history report looked good. There were about 40 high-resolution photos. If I wanted, the salesperson agreed to do a video call. He also said I was welcome to have an outside inspector come look at the car. That all sounded fine.
But what does the vehicle drive like? How's the steering? Does it feel loose to me? The dealership said the interior smelled fine, but what is its odor actually like?
Crucially, if I have this car shipped from North Dakota to Michigan, and I then find its steering and scent incongruent with my tastes, can it be returned? No, the salesperson said. Of course not.
I walked away from the purchase.
When it comes to buying a vehicle, most people are more rational than me and probably less picky, too. At the same time, return policies can create headaches for dealerships with overhead that Carvana lacks. But a return policy may be the final barrier to more online used-vehicle sales. That, and sending smell digitally.