Google exec calls online car buying ‘a sustainable trend’

PRAGUE — The number of European car buyers keen to make their purchase online went up significantly during the pandemic and stayed at that level even as freedoms returned, a top Google executive said.

“We have seen the uptick in online car buying stay post COVID,” Christian Richter, Google’s director of auto retail, told the Automotive News Europe Congress here last week. “People learned they could buy pretty much everything online, including cars. It’s now a sustainable trend.”

Richter oversees the automotive side of the tech giant’s advertising arm and uses the data from Google searches as well as customer interaction with automotive advertising on Google platforms to map buyer trends.

About 14 percent of cars are now bought online, Richter said, citing Google research.

“The question is: What is a 100 percent online purchase? Does it mean delivery, no paperwork, electronic signature on documents only?” he said. “But 10 to 15 percent of sales are very, very online.”

The bulk of car sales, about 80 percent, are what Richter calls “omnichannel” purchases, where the customer journey mixes physical and digital elements to get into their chosen vehicle.

The variation between those who prefer a more digital process compared with a physical route to ownership doesn’t radically diverge between countries in Europe, Richter said.

“The Nordic countries and the UK are more digital and southern Europe is slightly less digital, but there’s only a 5 to 10 percent difference,” he told the Congress. “It’s more about which player can offer the best consumer experience. The moment you offer a really good online purchase journey the customers will go for it.”

Google’s data showing 14 percent of customers buying cars online is higher than customer research survey data gathered in 2021 by retail analyst firm ICDP, which says 7 percent of buyers purchase entirely online.

“We don’t see any evidence that customers want to buy online,” ICDP Managing Director Steve Young said during a separate interview at the Congress.

ICDP’s data, however, shows that buyers of electric cars are twice as likely to conduct the whole process online at 15 percent overall.

EV buyers open to try something new

The EV buyer is also shopping around more, according to Google data.

EV buyers on average will investigate 5.1 brands compared with 3.4 brands for the buyer of a fuel-powered vehicle.

“EV customers look at existing brands and new entrants and say, ‘What are my options?’ We see this clearly in the data.” Richter said. “People don’t really care if you have 100 years building the best combustion engine in the world because it’s a new product.”

This trend is causing more automakers to seek to understand EV buyers, and in some cases reposition their brands to better capture the attention of this new, more open buyer, Richter said.

The chief concerns of electric car buyers are also changing.

“Two or three years ago in searches the battery range was the No. 1 concern, now it’s position three,” Richter said.

Top is now price as electric cars become more expensive, followed by charging infrastructure, as buyers look for reassurance that they will be able to charge their new car.

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