NEW YORK – Car buyers’ minds are far from made up when they enter the market.

“There’s a lot of cross-shopping, and not just in the vehicle segment they started out looking at,” says James Franchi, AutoTrader Group’s division president-media, citing consumer interviews and online-shopping behavior research.

Only 9% of online shoppers decide off the bat on an exact vehicle make. Just 31% initially are sure of the model. That means many people who start out looking at, say, midsize sedans could end up buying a CUV.    

“Consumers can get overwhelmed with information,” Franchi says at an automotive conference conducted by J.D. Power and the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

He addresses five realities changing the car-buying experience. One is consumer access to unprecedented amounts of information on the Internet. Related to that, the others are:

  • People do more online automotive shopping and researching before heading to a dealership. They check out automaker, dealer and third-party websites. In 2011, the average time spent car shopping was 10.75 hours online and 6.75 hours offline. Today, it’s 12 hours online, 3.5 hours offline. The No.1 reason people cite for picking a dealership is it had the desired car. No.2: the best deal. No.3: They liked the salesperson, an important factor among Generation Y, Franchi says.
  • Online shoppers use varied equipment, from desktop computers to computer tablets to smartphones. “Thirty-two percent of shoppers of all ages are using mobile,” Franchi says, pointing to a marketing need for device-specific website designs.
  • Generation Y, people in their late teens to mid-30s, are becoming a growing force as automotive consumers. They’re particularly interested in car connectivity. “By 2020, they’ll buy 40% of the vehicles,” Franchi says.
  • Automotive marketing needs consistency across channels, despite formatting differences. A common theme drives people to action.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com