By early April, signs emerged that online car-shopping activity, while dampened by the coronavirus outbreak, hadn't fallen to the same degree as actual sales.
At the time, it was a sliver of optimism for an industry reeling from its most challenging weeks in more than a decade. Even as state and local orders closed showrooms and curbed traffic, retailers anticipated that pent-up demand may be unleashed once the worst of the pandemic had passed.
That picture became even rosier as states began to lift some limits on businesses. Prospective vehicle shoppers are robustly shopping online, based on data from third-party vehicle listings sites. A recent consumer survey conducted by CarGurus found that 77 percent of respondents planning to buy a vehicle in 2020 are actively researching. Cars.com and TrueCar also reported improvement in online shopping metrics starting in April and continuing into May.
The publicly traded marketplaces — Cars.com, CarGurus and TrueCar — all reported in May that some dealership customers opted to cancel or suspend their accounts to preserve cash. They said that trend has begun to stabilize.
Early in the outbreak, online marketplaces say they cautioned dealerships not to pull back too far, that consumers would delay but not cancel purchases. At some point, those customers would be back in the market, generating leads.
"You want to be ahead of those customers while they're shopping now," said Scott Fanelli, vice president of dealer sales at Edmunds.
Demand has not fully recovered, as May sales were softer than a year ago. But the slide wasn't as steep as in March and April, and showrooms are reopening in more states.
If online shopping patterns translate into sales, dealerships may have reason to be optimistic this summer.