Franchised dealers are missing out on the sales opportunities presented by open minded consumers beginning their search for a new car.
Less than 10% of consumers know the brand of car they want when their search begins; 60% are willing to consider at least three brands, according to the latest research revealed by Auto Trader.
And critically half of consumers are going straight to dealerships without any prior contact - and when there, two-thirds are ready to purchase.
However, while improving, too many dealers are taking too long to respond and are not sufficiently transparent with information customers expect.
In its own mystery shops, Auto Trader found that while 50% of dealers replied to any form of contact from a customer (email, voice mail, telephone call, text etc) within 24 hours, the remainder did not respond at all.
Trevor Mather (pictured), Auto Trader chief executive, said: "Buyers might be looking at more sources of vehicle information - an average of 18 now and increasing all the time - but the time they are spending searching is shortening to the point where it is about six weeks now.
"This points to an intensification of search and a requirement for greater speed of response and transparency of information available."
In the US, consumers expect greater clarity on how part-exchange values are made and the finance options available and are calcuated. The expected response time to a phone call is within four hours.
Mather said while dealers' poor response times have been a common theme for years, there are signs of improvement.
"So often, improvement is not only down to processes, but your people. The bigger dealer groups are getting the message and are responding to all customer enquiries. But finding and motivating your people is critical."
Auto Trader is also making tools available to help dealers: it's introduced a free call tracker and, acknowledging the dramatic increase in consumers' willingness to use instant messenging - or Live Chat - and the popularity of enquiries out of working hours revealed in its research, Auto Trader is going to offer a chat management service.
A total of 60% of consumers do their research 'our of hours' and the favourite time for it is getting later, with a growing proportion doing it between 10 and 10.30 at night.
Auto Trader's managed chat service will provide an initial response on behalf of dealers to the out of hours enquiries, from 8pm until midnight.
Mather also revealed the company was looking to revise its search funtion, introducing greater options than the existing 'make and model' format, to cater for that large group of consumers who haven't made this decision yet. He wouldn't be drawn on details, however.
> Auto Trader chief executive Trever Mather said the increasing level of competition in its sector was not prompting it to consider its pricing. New market entrants such as the AA, RAC and Sun Motors plus the increase in visibility of Motors.co.uk had not damaged Traders' performance.
"We're not seeing the AA or RAC win share from us and they're not marketing themselves aggressively, while Motors is. We have 52% market share and an average of more than 400,000 cars in stock - an 8% increase year-on-year," he said. Traders' record is 410,000.
"As we're not seeing a negative change in share and visits and we're continuing to deliver dealers value, why would we change our pricing?"
> Link to Auto Trader's latest research into consumer search habits and their expectations of dealers based on a survey of 1,800 active car buyers.