What looked like an intriguing and growing facet of car buying a couple of months ago has become explosively important to both buyers and sellers: remote, online, “contactless” car buying.
You shop from home — that's not new — but then complete the entire transaction without having to go to a dealership for a test-drive, to sign papers or to get financing. All of the details are done online.
The car is delivered to your driveway or curbside. Sign the sanitized papers left inside if you haven't already done it online, snag the sanitized keys left in the car, and you've got a new or new-to-you vehicle.
"A month ago, we — the industry — might have felt we had the luxury of bringing these changes into being slowly. But over the past 30 days, it's become the difference between being able to do business and not do business,” says Alain Nana-Sinkam, vice president of strategic initiatives at the TrueCar car-shopping service.
Quick debut of total at-home purchases
TrueCar recently rolled out a buy-from-home feature that lets you complete an entire auto transaction without having in-person contact with the dealership. That's largely a response to fears of catching COVID-19 but also because some people don't like car dealers.
"If you spend three hours at the dealership, it can feel like you spent a week there,” Nana-Sinkam says. “If you spend two of it online and an hour taking delivery, that's completely different.”
More than 4,500 of the 16,741 new car dealerships in the U.S. have signed up so far for his company's buy-from-home program and can mention it in their ads, he says. TrueCar has sanitization requirements that a dealership must honor and rules that make purchasing from your easy chair possible. AARP partners with TrueCar for the AARP Auto Buying Program.
What about test-drives? They're still important but perhaps less so in the future, says Jon Gray, owner and president of the Orange Coast Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram Fiat dealership in Costa Mesa, California.
“I don't know that it's as critical as it once was,” he says.
Do your car-buying homework
Ratings from third-party evaluators, such as Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates, can help steer a shopper to brands and models of vehicles that perform like a shopper wants. You can investigate braking, crash-test scores, trouble spots and resale value.
Instead of the traditional wheel time, Gray says, a lot of buyers “want to see what new gadgets are inside to make your driving cooler.” Rather than wanting to know how a car rides and handles, a buyer “may be wondering, ‘Does it have Apple CarPlay?’ or ‘How big is the [infotainment] screen?’ You want to know about the cool stuff inside.”
"That's becoming more true,” says Chris Sutton, vice president of automotive retail and study at the research firm J.D. Power. Last year, 83 percent of buyers took a test-drive, still an overwhelming percentage. But that was down from 87 percent in 2014.
Gray's dealership was first to sign up with Digital Motors, an automotive retail and financial technology platform, to make online buying simple. And now Gray is an investor in the company. His employees will bring a car to you, along with a product specialist to brief you about features.