Reporters love data. Numbers offer evidence to back up anecdotal stories and put emerging trends in context, which makes them incredibly useful as we try to make sense of what's happening around us.
Yet data is just a snapshot. The numbers tell a story of what's happening at a particular moment in time. Often, they provide us with potential explanations, rather than conclusions, about the significance of new trends and behaviors.
At the start of this year, I wrote about a new Cox Automotive survey that found that U.S. consumers who purchased or leased vehicles in 2020 and 2021 were happier with their overall shopping experience than buyers in 2019, before the pandemic. Consumers were happier with the process last year — even with high prices and a shortage of inventory — than they were pre-pandemic.
A data point from that survey pulls back a layer of the onion: In general, consumers who completed more than half of a vehicle purchase online were more satisfied with the shopping experience and the time it took than those who did 20 percent or less online.
Cox researchers said at the time that the results signal dealers have changed their processes around shopping and transacting in a way that makes the process more efficient, particularly online.
J.D. Power reported a similar finding last November, noting greater satisfaction among buyers of both premium and mass-market brand vehicles who wanted to and could transact remotely than among those who visited a dealership. Chris Sutton, J.D. Power vice president of automotive retail, told me the results present an opportunity for dealerships to improve the in-person experience, particularly to save customers time.
"I don't take this that we have to drive everybody remotely, because I think the customer drives a lot of that," Sutton said. "I think it shows the awesome opportunity to make the showroom experience more efficient."
I don't read these findings as proof that all consumers enjoy buying a vehicle online or that buying online is the main reason consumers are more satisfied with the process. Prices and vehicle selection play a role in customer satisfaction, too, and higher prices and fewer models clearly took a toll last year.
But the information tells me the stories I hear repeatedly in my reporting — that consumers want to save time with a more convenient, seamless and transparent experience and the dealerships providing that are seeing success — are increasingly resonating.