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Image still drive searches on web

Allegations surrounding 'rip-off' prices severely hit new car sales last year, causing many people to delay purchases, with some turning to the grey import market.

According to Auto Trader, the continuing knock-on effect on the market is uncertain. For now, dealers hope that after three years of decline, used car prices may have finally bottomed out.

Auto Trader's latest assessment of the online used car market surveys the past 12 months and builds on a three-year study of car-types searched for on its website. Data from the more than 1m users it says enter details on the site each month reveals the cars internet users either want or avoid.

Growing concern among motorists has developed over the cost of running a car, most graphically demonstrated by the fuel protests last autumn.

Auto Trader says the growth in UK internet usage has continued unabated. It reports a 40% increase in searches on its site (now said to be almost 3.5m a month).

Some research suggests internet users are becoming more mainstream but Auto Trader's figures point to a stereotypical image of a web-surfer.

It portrays them as younger than average motorists and more affluent. Sixty per cent appear to be under the age of 35, nearly 80% are classified ABC1 and internet users are still overwhelmingly male.

An Auto Trade spokesman said: “It's immediately apparent that these young and image-conscious buyers constitute a lucrative market, with more than a third of them spending upwards of £8,000 on a used car. An in-depth understanding of their requirements is vital.”

Mainstream family cars and superminis together accounted for more than three-quarters of enquiries. The far greater-than-average bias in favour of sports cars matches the audience.

Demand for these types of cars has changed and provides an insight into how consumer tastes have shifted.

There has been a marked swing in favour of smaller cars over the past two years. The growing demand for superminis no doubt reflects the increasing importance people attach to vehicle running costs. With low insurance costs (important for a young, male audience) and good fuel economy, the case for downsizing is already compelling.

This trend will have been helped by the Government's tax incentives, such as reduced road tax on smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Increasing levels of comfort and refinement offered by modern designs significantly push today's trend towards small cars. Air-conditioning and power steering, now common place, were a rarity in an equivalent model 10 years ago.

Today, economising has never been so comfortable. The need among some people for more space than small cars can offer might explain the surge in popularity of mainstream family cars, after a decline was observed in the previous year. People seem to be focusing on more practical vehicles this year, says Auto Trader.

The attraction of the internet for people seeking sports and executive cars appears to be becoming less pronounced, Auto Trader's research suggests. This may be due in part to a change in the type of people using the internet as it matures. It also points to the fact that many traditionally popular models have recently been superseded by limited supplies of newer models. In such a fashion conscious market, buyers have been opting for something different (notably hot-hatches) to avoid being seen in the previous year's model. Despite the decline in sports car searches, the popularity of a number of newer models has risen quite substantially.

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