COVID-19 brings at-home test drives for online car buyers

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Until recently, concierge services for car buyers were largely a luxury for the well-heeled.

In Canada, for example, high-end brand Genesis has been offering a valet-style test drive that lets customers take new vehicles for a spin starting from their home or office.

But as concerns over COVID-19 boost online car-shopping, what used to be a white-glove service is becoming increasingly available to average consumers.

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It’s part of the digital shakeup that’s swept the industry over the past few months, says Ian MacDonald, chief marketing officer at, an online vehicle marketplace.

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Canadians, he says, have long been turning to the web for at least part of their car-buying journey, with around 90 per cent of consumers using the internet at some point in their search.

Amid the health crisis, though, it’s becoming easier to go through every stage of the car-buying process without setting foot in a dealership.

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On Autotrader there are now some 30,000 vehicles available for purchase entirely online, MacDonald says. That number was zero just a few months ago at the onset of the pandemic, he adds.

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While auto sales cratered with the onset of the pandemic, they’ve staged a strong rebound starting in May.

Autotrader has seen record-setting traffic for the past six months, with volumes peaking at 10 million unique users in the month of August, according to MacDonald.

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The pandemic is also bringing more first-time buyers to the market, according to survey data from Autotrader. One in 10 buyers who did not previously own a vehicle said they were considering a purchase because of COVID-19, a fall poll commissioned by the company shows.

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A similar recent survey conducted by BrandSpark for Kijiji Autos, another online vehicle marketplace, found around half of respondents who were planning to buy a vehicle within six months wanted to avoid using public transit, while about a quarter wanted to avoid ride-sharing services.

Lockdown restrictions and concerns over person-to-person contact have forced the industry to bring its business largely online, with dealers turning to chatbots, video calls and virtual walkthroughs.

Online marketplaces have also upgraded their toolkit. Autotrader now offers a “contactless services” filter that will narrow the search to dealers who offer things like home test drives, virtual appraisals, and home delivery. The most comprehensive “buy online” option allows buyers to select their vehicle configuration, get a digital trade-in appraisal, get pre-approved for finances and place a deposit to reserve their new ride all online.

Kijiji Autos also has filters for things like virtual appraisals, home delivery and online purchasing.

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In most cases, buying a car still requires putting pen to paper for what’s known as a “wet signature,” says Robert Karbaum, head of business development at Kijiji Autos. But that often means signing the paperwork in your driveway after reviewing everything online, he adds.

Buying online in general means consumers can take their time to do the research and choose vehicle features, MacDonald says.

“When you’re in the dealership, it can be a decision that you have to take quite quickly,” he says.

Virtual car-buying also eliminates the need for haggling, he adds.

“The price is obviously shown and known right at the outset of the digital journey.”

On the other hand, it’s a good idea to check whether at-home test drives involve an extra cost, he says.

The service typically requires setting up one-day rental agreements, Karbaum says, although most dealers will likely eat the cost rather than pass it on to consumers.

In general, though, buying a car entirely online is still relatively rare. The 30,000 vehicles available for digital purchase through Autotrader, for example, are just 10 per cent of the company’s overall stock, according to MacDonald.

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Still, if you’re happy with doing 99 per cent of the car shopping remotely, the future is already here, Karbaum says.

The pandemic, he says, has “sped up the direction that the industry is taking.”

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