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Retail buyers devote only 21 days to internet searches

In February, we examined the type of vehicle online car buyers searched for and compared this with the overall car market. We demonstrated that online buyers were more interested in sports cars than the market as a whole.

Now we have investigated how people search for a car online by analysing, over six months, searches on our site. Recently, we have been able to identify which searches specific customers ran. This has given us an unprecedented insight into how people make their buying decision, and lets us identify the key factors involved in their decision.

In a recent customer survey, we discovered the biggest reason why people used the site was to research the market, ahead of looking for a specific car to buy.

It is important to define 'search' and to see whether people are looking at a general type of car, or for the best example of a specific make and model.

A useful clue is how long people searched for a car on the site, and we found this was quite short. On average, more than half the audience was active for less than three weeks, with people accessing the site three times in that period. People returned on a weekly basis, as the majority of ads would have changed in that time, and each visit lasted for approximately eight minutes.

We looked into whether people were shopping around in this time or focusing on finding one specific car. The Auto Trader search engine has three main variables they could alter:

  • The price range of the vehicle – people can raise their price ceiling if required.
  • The distance searched over – most people look between 40 and 60 miles but this could also be changed.
  • The car required – in this inquiry we looked only at people searching for mainstream family cars where substituting one make for another was a viable option. We examined each variable in turn to assess which factors are most important to people when they search for a new car.

    Bargain hunters go for hatchbacks like Fiesta

    We split the users according to the type of car they were searching for, and examined the typical prices people specified in each group.

    People looking for superminis tended to search at lower price ranges than people wanting other types of car. Searches peaked at £2,000, and dropped off rapidly as the budgets increased. Upper medium cars and executive models both followed the same pattern as the lower medium vehicles but the volume of searches at higher budgets was more significant.

    We looked at why superminis were so out of step. The lower running costs of these vehicles are likely to have attracted budget-conscious motorists. However, a £3,000 Fiesta is more likely to be in reasonable condition than a £3,000 Vectra, so people may not have had the same incentive to spend any more money than they had to.

    What remained consistent, whatever the type of car, was that people were not prepared to increase budgets during their time on the site. They identified a plausible budget for this car and chose to alter one of the other variables instead.

    Mass market lacks loyalty to brands

    Previously, we found the distance people are prepared to travel to view a car increases with the amount they are spending.

    Understandably, people will not go hundreds of miles to find a cheap 'banger' as the travel costs would undermine the economics of the exercise.

    While there is a link between search distance and budget, neither group was prepared to increase their search area beyond that initially set.

    We next looked at whether people are prepared to change the model when seeking a car.

    Given that we are concentrating on mass market vehicles in this analysis, it would be reasonable to assume that people were more likely to exchange one model of car for another. This analysis proves that this is indeed the case.

    We found people pursuing lower-priced vehicles searched for a wider range of makes. Cheaper cars are likely to be older and have a higher mileage, so the overall condition will probably take precedence over the model.

    The graph below shows how people preparing to spend £3,000, on average, looked at seven different makes of car. When the budget was £7,000, people only looked for four marques.

    Most online searches consider range of cars

    One of the main findings from this investigation was that people search online for a car over a short period of time (on average three weeks).

    Despite this, people did consider a wide variety of different cars. Given the option of altering the budget, search area or the car, our users would look for a different car in preference to changing the other factors. Users searching for a supermini had different searching characteristics to people looking for other types of car – they tended to search at lower price ranges and their behaviour was less influenced by budget than people searching for other types of car.

  • For the purpose of this investigation we examined searches carried out by individual site users looking for a supermini, small family car, large family car and executive car on the Auto Trader site between June and December 2000.

    Users who accessed the site only once and did not return in this time period were excluded from the analysis. Similarly, users who ran an excessive number of searches (such as seeking a vehicle for more than eight weeks) were also excluded to avoid skewing the average values.

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