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Millennials Changing How Cars Are Sold, But Still Like Personal Service

By Aaron Crowe

Growing up with the Internet at their fingertips, Millennials are used to researching a car purchase with their mobile devices. Being tech-savvy doesn’t mean they don’t want to deal with a salesperson when buying a car, according to a new study.

One of every three Millennials (ages 18-34) used their phones to find contact information for a local dealership, compared to one out of four adults 35 and older, according to a study commissioned by in early 2015.

But the young car buyers also heavily valued the in-dealership experience, such as talking to salespeople and taking a test drive, the study found. Online shopping is still important in how they shop for cars, with Millennials using their mobile devices to read vehicle reviews, find vehicles for sale, and research prices.

A customer’s experience online

Laura Arnold, 29, a marketing manager in Cincinnati, says she and her husband, 34, recently got new cars after doing a lot of work online before walking into the dealership.

“I did just about everything online, from talking to dealerships, getting a quote for trade-ins, and pricing out our model through the dealer chat and email,” Arnold says.

“By the time I walked into the dealership we bought from, I had the price for the car we wanted — no haggling required,” she says. “I was able to research it and knew it was already fair. I had my trade-in quotes from competing dealerships and told them what they’d have to beat.”

She visited two dealerships, and one “bungled the online experience so badly,” she says. After asking the dealer to contact her via email, they contacted her by phone, email and text multiple times, then sent her email from various people at the dealership instead of one consistent contact, Arnold says.

Even when they’re in an auto dealer’s office, Millennials use their smartphones for such things as calculating the monthly payment on a new car and evaluating vehicle options and warranties, according to the Edmunds study.

They also ranked technology features such as infotainment and Bluetooth as important factors when buying a car, behind price, fuel economy and performance.

Dealerships changing car buying process

Some auto dealerships are changing how they sell to Millennials. Toyota has a large presence at festivals, and is bringing the test drive experience to young drivers at the Stagecoach Festival in California in late April. Festival-goers can ride shotgun with expert drivers, and meet off road racer Ivan Stewart and freestyle motocross star Andy Bell.

For other first-time car buyers who tech-savvy, Toyota teamed up with Google to create what it calls the Corolla Collaborator. A potential buyer can invite up to five of their friends to customize a car, see the interior with a 360-degree, 3D viewer, and take a virtual test drive with Google Street View.

All of the online advantages often can’t beat sitting in a car and taking a real test drive. Andres Zilveti, 22, who works at a marketing agency in Houston, says he bought a car in May after comparison shopping through dealerships, Costco and other websites. Ultimately, dealing with a salesperson face-to-face was much better for Zilveti than being on the phone or online, he says.

“I felt like I was missing a personal touch,” he says. “I test drove multiple cars at multiple dealerships.”

One downfall of the online shopping experience, Zilveti says, is that when he messaged dealerships online, he didn’t hear back from many of them. Of the ones that did get back to him, they gave him information about cars he wasn’t interested in.

Instead of doing a lot more research online and buying online, he ended up going to a dealership, where he bought a car. The old-fashioned way of car buying worked for him.

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for