The future of car buying is probably not what you think

By Kevin Allen, 9 March 2022 | 6 mins read

Most people reading this will be experienced online shoppers. Many of us may be real enthusiasts who love the experience as much as the convenience. But if you asked any of us to spend £15k, £20k or even more to buy something we’re going to have to live with, every day, for the next four or five years – how many of us would be happy just going ‘click, click, buy’?

Yet that’s exactly what a new generation of digitally born, used car retailers, flush with venture capital money are telling us to do. They don’t expect us to touch it, sit in it, test drive it. Just give them the money and they’ll deliver. As if a new car is no different than a dress, pet food or toilet paper.

For most of us a car is still different. It’s a more complex purchase, there are lots of details we want to consider; there’s a big emotional dimension because it plays such a significant role in our everyday lives; and most of us don’t have the same confidence in our knowledge compared to our fashion or grocery decisions.

Which is why it’s not surprising that when you really talk to people about how they are going to buy their next car very few say they’ll buy wholly online, sight unseen. In fact, research we commissioned for our client Pendragon showed less than 15% of drivers in the UK want to buy this way. Most of us want to talk to someone who knows a lot more than we do, we want to experience it for ourselves before we sign away that much money.

High Street – Highway Showroom

The second will be how high streets and shopping centres evolve in a world where traditional shopping has pivoted to ecommerce. The spaces will continue to exist, but the function of those spaces will change. Many will become physical showcases for a succession of temporary retail experiences and brand pop-ups. This creates great opportunity for sectors including car retail that have historically been excluded by the cost of retail space in these areas. Retailers that embrace new technology and design methods that allow them to create eye-catching ways to showcase their products and interact with customers in areas of high footfall will become winners.

Finally, there’s the electric elephant in the room. If the government’s promise (or threat) to make the UK an EV nation by 2030 is for real, then the consequences for the car retail sector will be significant, even if the nature of that change remains unpredictable.

For me the biggest question though is not about the technology or the car brands that emerge as the EV winners, it’s about the customer: if car conversations have historically been dominated by the opinions of self-styled petrolheads, what happens when cars no longer run on petrol?