MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – Most people use the Internet to car shop. But beyond that, their online behavior represents the antithesis of herd mentality.

“They bounce around like crazy,” says Jared Rowe, president of AutoTrader, an online marketplace. “They’re aggregating. They’re triangulating.”

Companies such as AutoTrader can track where car shoppers have gone online and what vehicles they’ve checked out. But it’s harder to predict exactly where they’re going with all the information they pick up on their individual journeys.     

“Although so many people go online to shop for cars (about 80% by most estimates), no two people do it the same way,” says Duncan Scarry, founder of Haystak, a digital marketer that, like AutoTrader, is part of Cox Automotive.

He likens online car shoppers to commuters going in and out of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. They come from different places. They go every which way at different times.

Online car shoppers can get daunted early into their online shopping and researching because of the sheer volume of online information they encounter.

“It’s a pretty confused shopper going in,” Scarry tells a dealer audience at Cox’s 2015 Digital Summit held at Google headquarters here.     

Many shoppers aren’t sure exactly what they want. Several start out with one make and model in mind, then check out something else. It’s not unusual for them to switch brand interest. Nearly 60% look at both new and used cars.

What happens when they eventually get to the dealership?

By then, they’re pretty sure of themselves, if not always entirely convinced of what to buy, Scarry says. “They go from confused to confident. About 70% of consumers end up buying the car they had in mind after their subsequent research.”

They’re online more (nearly 11 hours) and offline less (about 6 hours) while car shopping. “They’re spending 30% less time at the dealership than they were last year.”

That trend lessens the importance of traditional selling systems, such as the 5-step process that covers a lot of ground, including asking qualifying questions and demonstrating various products. A knowledgeable customer who has done a lot of homework isn’t necessarily interested in a protracted step-by-step sales approach.

“That’s not the way cars are sold today,” Scarry says, adding that sales-floor traditionalists can find that disconcerting.

Consumers don’t stop using the Internet after they’ve entered the dealership. Not when they have their mobile devices, as more and more do, especially young people.

“They’re in the dealership using their devices to do things like fact check prices and incentives,” Scarry says “A value the salesperson brings is that what they are saying matches what people are seeing on their smartphones.”

Millennials, ages 18 to 34, in particular peer at their smartphone screens throughout their car shopping. Some of them depend entirely on their phones.

“My eyes aren’t that good,” Scarry says. “But this is Internet-in-the-pocket. It helps a huge number of people make a purchase decision.”

The auto industry shows a particular interest in Millennials. It’s more than the allure of youth. It has to do with the generation’s growing buying power.

“In 10 years, Millennials will be buying 70% of the cars,” Scarry says. He disagrees with people who say the Internet revolution is over. “It’s not done.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com