Could Virtual Test Drives Transform the Car-buying Experience?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
could virtual test drives transform the car buying experience

With large hunks of the nation still under varying degrees of pandemic-related restrictions and accompanying panic, auto dealerships haven’t been awash with customers. Many that did reopen have been forced to follow distancing guidelines, frequently limiting the number of people allowed on the premises. Hoping to avoid closing permanently and relinquishing ownership to the bank, they’ve come up with some interesting solutions to keep their clientele interested.

Virtual test drives aren’t exactly new, but they have become an increasingly popular avenue for dealerships hoping to drum up business in 2020. While we’ve seen salespeople giving tours of new product as they hit the lot for years, on-board video is typically reserved for independent review purposes. That’s largely because nobody really expects a fair assessment from the person selling the vehicle. However, with in-person test drives becoming quite difficult, showrooms want to exercise every option they have to draw in customers.

You may not be able to feel the car for yourself and make mental notes on the physical experience, but stores think they can give you just enough info to make you want to take the next step. This isn’t necessarily a substitution for test drives (though we’re sure it will be for less thorough shoppers). It’s just the best alternative the industry can muster at present.

Multiple dealers along the East Coast have told us they’ve seen increased viewership of their video walk-arounds over the past few months. This was especially true of storefronts specializing in higher-end product. According to Automotive News, the phenomenon isn’t isolated to coastal areas or fancy-pants nameplates. Dealerships across the nation are seeing increased online traffic and have attempted to improve the virtual experience, apparently to great effect — at least anecdotally.

From AN:

Dealerships that have added virtual test drives to their online repertoires in recent years suddenly have a unique connection point to shoppers during a health crisis, adding an interactive element to online research. Panoramic videos from production company FlowFound allow viewers to look around the cabins on their mobile devices or computers during the presentations and get a firsthand glimpse at how technologies such as adaptive cruise control work in real-world conditions.

Stores such as Gwinnett Place Honda were ahead of the curve with the 360-degree videos, deploying the digital showcases several years ago as a perk to make their websites a better resource for prospective consumers. The COVID-19 outbreak has increased the importance of these videos at a time when some shoppers are hesitant to visit showrooms and has sparked a rush of stores that are adopting the technology.

Nick Cybela, FlowFound’s CEO, said sales jumped 600 percent at the onset of the pandemic. He foresees the crisis inducing a mass adoption of video technology in general, not just for virtual test drives. Cybela said the videos need to be executed well to be beneficial to dealerships.

The aforementioned Gwinnett Place, located near Atlanta, offers individuals visiting its website an opportunity to sit beside sales people as they take the latest Honda vehicles on a tour of the surrounding area. While dealers may mention how the model drives or feels on the road, much of the experience focuses upon the latest and greatest features offered by the manufacturer. These items are often accompanied by visual aids to draw additional attention while customers make use of the 360-degree view to look around the cabin remotely. The clips are frequently shared on social media to help draw as many eyes as possible and redirect them to the dealership’s homepage.

Danika Windom, Gwinnett Place’s marketing director, stopped short of saying it actually helped sell more vehicles, but noted that it has helped the site gain some attention and keeps the sales staff occupied. “Our consultants like being in front of the camera to assist themselves in getting customers,” Windom told Automotive News. “It helped generate some leads.”

With numerous dealerships under the impression that online sales will be essential in the coming years, virtual test drives may become an essential aspect of doing business. However, we’re not sure it’ll become a lynchpin for sales. Despite AN suggesting these companies are seeing major increases in traffic during the pandemic, walk-around videos don’t seem to be gaining much traction on YouTube — with most shops lucky to get more than 50 views per clip. Totally replacing an actual test drive with a virtual experience sounds unlikely, as there’s only so much that can be conveyed through a screen. Yet a polished video with loads of information may help viewers in making a final decision, funneling them toward a specific dealer.

Some outfits remain fairly optimistic on the strategy.

“From the comfort of their couch, they can virtually test drive that vehicle,” said Kevin Frye, marketing director for the Midwest-based Jeff Wyler Automotive Group. “It is definitely going to be a contributing factor to more 100 percent online sales in the future. But we’re still seeing even with people doing that, they’re going to come in and test drive physically if they can. But it’s a very forward-thinking concept.”[Image: Pop Paul-Catalin/Shutterstock]
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2 of 26 comments
  • Gasser Gasser on Aug 11, 2020

    Test drive is critical. My wife and I have turned down several cars/SUVs over the years even though the pictures were great and the prices were right. The driving itself was bad. And that was only by the 15” salesman in the car test drive. I imagine that renting a similar year/trim level for a day or so will be the new minimum experience needed for a brand to get my dollars.

  • Texan01 Texan01 on Aug 12, 2020

    Not at all... I can sit in a car and love it, then actually drive it and hate the way it drives/feels/sounds. There were several Mitsubishi cars I loved, (early/mid '00s Galant/Diamante) but I could not get comfortable in them at all. Some cars I thought were great, but visibility was horrendous.

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