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Driving the conversation: User testing the car dealership experience

Phillip Moore  |  November 03, 2015

Easy access to online information has affected most major retail categories. In fact, the Consumer Electronics Association discovered that many people feel that information gathered online is more valuable than in-store information. Until very recently, the experience of shopping for a car at a dealership has been pretty much the same since cars have been around. The current car dealership model may be behind other industries, but the ease of available information is beginning to affect this experience too. Lexus is testing out the removal of price haggling. This is an attempt to present the salesperson as less of a barrier and more helpful to the customer. BMW is also piloting a new dealership experience with the addition of “product geniuses,” who are there to make sure the customer understands all the details of the product. The main motivation of a product genius is to ensure customer satisfaction. Along these lines, we set out to see how online research before and during a dealership visit affects the car buying experience.


With our UserTesting panel, we found people in the midst of buying a new car and followed them as they used the internet to help them make that decision. We recruited three people from around the U.S. who were planning on buying a car within the next three months. These people researched cars and trucks they wanted to buy and then went to a dealership. All three participants went to a dealership with specific cars in mind (Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Camry and Nissan Rogue). They described how online research affected their experience. While they shopped, we got a peek into the dealership experience via our Mobile Recorder. Participants gave us a look at the dealership and the cars they were interested in as they documented their experience.

Initial customer research

Participants looked at both dealership sites and car review sites before entering a dealership. Consumer reviews, fuel economy, and price were important to all participants when buying a new car. Our participants arrived at dealerships armed with information on pricing and features. All three stated they would research the vehicles they wanted to view before going to a dealership.

At the dealership

Two out of the three participants were able to find the vehicle they researched online at a dealership. Both of these participants liked the vehicle they found. Seeing the car in person made one participant more interested in purchasing the car she came to see. She loved the available colors and the brand new interior of the car. One participant did not find the Camry he wanted but did have a positive salesperson encounter. The salesperson directed him to a different car he is now interested in purchasing.  

Online research at the dealership

Doing online research while at a dealership was a common trend, particularly due to a lack of trust in salespeople. One participant said she expected to pay $500-$1,000 over any manufacturer price listed online. Another participant worried that a salesperson's opinion could be biased. For this reason, he read consumer reports online while at a dealership. The impact of online research while at a dealership had a variety of effects on participants. One participant stated that online research did not change her opinion of the car she wanted—but she did want to do more research and then have a conversation with a salesperson. One participant had a lowered opinion because the fuel economy he found online was not as good as he first thought. But the third participant confirmed her positive view of the car she wanted by researching online while at the dealership. Whether it had a positive or negative effect, research done via smartphone while browsing cars influenced all participants’ impressions of the cars they saw.

Salesperson impressions

Participants had different reactions to information found online, but interactions with a salesperson had a positive effect on the majority of participants. One participant became frustrated because she was not approached by a salesperson. A salesperson helped another participant find a vehicle he wanted to buy. In this case, his online research about the vehicle's gas mileage gave him leverage to negotiate with the salesperson.


In some ways, the car dealership experience has not changed. We still expect to talk with a salesperson while at the dealership. But the nature of that conversation may be evolving. The available information online is having an effect on the car buying experience. Customers are becoming more educated on features, prices and consumer reports. Dealership sales interactions are changing from traditional haggling into information gathering experiences. Many customers arrive at a dealership looking for a specific vehicle, with a specific price already decided on. A salesperson is still considered a useful knowledge source. But they are becoming less and less the only—or even the most valuable—knowledge source. The future of the car dealership may lie in new roles such as BMW's "product geniuses." This preliminary study has shown how easy access to information is having an effect on car buying. Future research into specific effects that mobile devices are having on the dealership experience can be an invaluable tool in guiding this evolution.

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About the author:

Phillip is a researcher at UserTesting and likes to spend time brainstorming about future Mobile Recorder possibilities. When he’s not at work, he’s either playing with his dog, building in Minecraft, or tinkering with his new Arduino board.