LAS VEGAS – Most people go online as soon as they decide to buy a new vehicle, spending an average of 16 weeks shopping for models before visiting a dealership.

A few early birds begin much sooner, says Arianne Walker, a senior director at J.D. Power and Associates. “Some start online shopping two years before buying a car. For others, it’s a few weeks.”

Four out of five Americans use the Internet to car-shop and research. They consider it an important activity, but not necessarily an enjoyable one. Many people complain about information overload, according to a J.D. Power survey.

“More information sources plus the sheer number of auto options equals overload,” Walker says at the company’s Automotive Internet Roundtable here. “This is especially true among millennials.”

J.D. Power’s monitoring of social-media website chats detects such frustrations. One Internet user wrote, “Car shopping is exhausting and confusing. With every search online, I have to drink a sip of wine.”

Too much information can shake confidence and delay purchase decisions, Walker says.

Some Internet car shoppers worry about potential online-offline disconnects. “I hope these prices are the same at the lot as they are online,” someone said on a social-media website. Another wrote, “Salesmen really get miffed when prices online are cheaper than on their sheets.”

Dealerships can help reduce the car-shopping stress and bridge the online-offline gap, Walker says. “As Retail 3.0 takes hold, the information and experiences need to be the same across channels.”

She advises dealers to focus on both the pricing and emotional side of the buying experience and to “reach out to consumers who are feeling a disconnect.”

Dealers can help shoppers close in on a purchase by highlighting vehicles that best meet their needs, Walker says.

For instance, a young family that drives 22,000 miles (35,200 km) a year, enjoys the outdoors and has a household income of less than $60,000 requires a certain range of vehicles, she says.

Although more people are using smartphones and other mobile devices, J.D. Power research indicates 99% of Internet car shoppers use their desktop computers, 70% exclusively.

Almost 30% of Internet car shoppers use multiple devices. Of that group, 20% use smartphones and 18% computer tablets.

Car-shopping on desktop computers peaks during work hours (9 a.m. to noon), while mobile-device use is heaviest between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.  

Online shoppers are most interested in car prices, followed by model information and vehicle comparisons, Walker says.

Internet shoppers are more willing to travel farther to a dealership once they are ready to buy. “For dealers, that means more customers,” Walker says. “But it also means more competition.”

More than 70% of Internet shoppers do not submit online quote requests “primarily because they don’t want to give up information to a dealer,” she says. “They want to do things on their own time. Fifty-four percent of those not submitting quote requests said they were reluctant to be contacted by a dealer.”

Despite the high level of Internet activity, the dealership experience remains critical, Walker says. “After doing all that research online, people go to the dealership to truly kick the tires.”

The customer experience is “becoming the last battleground,” Don Butler, vice president-marketing for General Motors’ Cadillac division, tells conference attendees.       

“Customer experience can be a differentiator,” he says. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It’s respecting people’s time, helping facilitate the process and doing little things, such as greeting them by name.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com