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How consumers’ behavior in car buying and mobility is changing amid COVID-19

A freeze in mobility was one of the most visible signs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that economies are opening up again, how are mobility behavior and car sales changing?

Updated July 1, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many industries, but the automotive and mobility industries are among the hardest hit. Consumers across the globe continue to face severe health and financial concerns, and mobility remains somewhat restricted in many parts of the world. Many car dealerships closed, and car buying ground to a halt, with sales plummeting 71 percent in China in February 2020, 47 percent in the US in April, and 80 percent in Europe also in April. Likewise, mobility behavior has changed drastically, as many commuters have worked from home and others have stayed away from public transportation due to health concerns.

Now, as economies gradually reopen, automotive OEMs, car dealers, and government officials need to know how long the recovery will take and what the next normal will look like.

To help answer this, we are surveying consumers in the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and China biweekly on their mobility and behaviors around car buying and servicing. Our survey looks at both current consumer sentiment and their anticipated future behavior as economies find a next normal.

Our findings from the third wave of the survey, conducted June 16–18, are summarized here.

Car buying and servicing

When it comes to buying cars, purchase intent is still 14 percent below pre-COVID-19 levels, which, however, is a four percentage point improvement over our previous survey wave from the end of May. This comes with significant geographical differences:

  • The US is down 26 percent, but recovering (a four-percentage-point improvement from the survey’s second wave, and up 11 percentage points versus the survey’s first wave)
  • Europe is down 12 percent (an eight-percentage-point improvement from the survey’s second wave, and up 12 percentage points versus the survey’s first wave), with Germany and France recovering significantly, while the UK and Italy are still down 25 percent
  • China has recovered, with purchase intent back close to pre-COVID-19 levels
  • Japan is down 18 percent, with a nine-percentage-point improvement since our last survey
  • Demand for used cars appears more robust in the US and Asia, while in Europe new car demand is seeing stronger recovery
  • Higher-income households and premium brands seem less affected
  • Average duration of delay is stabilizing, with an increased share of consumers delaying up to three months; delays due to health concerns keep decreasing (down five to ten percentage points versus the previous month in the US and EU), while European consumers are increasingly delaying to wait for subsidies
  • An increasing share of consumers is seeing higher discounts in both the premium and volume segments; most consumers demand discounts of up to 20 percent

Across markets, 20 to 40 percent of consumers plan to spend less (a stable trend as compared to previous surveys). While consumers report only limited shifts between new and used cars, and between segments or volume and premium brands, actual sales suggest that the A and B segments and volume or budget brands may be more negatively affected by COVID-19.

The aftermarket appears to be fairly stable, however, as delayed maintenance and repair seem to be offset by additional and catch-up work (showing a positive trend versus previous surveys).

In both buying and servicing, a next normal seems to be emerging when it comes to how consumers want to buy and service their cars. Digital becomes more important along the entire purchase funnel, with half of consumers being interested in online and contactless sales and service. Consumers anticipate increased online ordering of parts and DIY work.

Mobility

During the coronavirus crisis, overall mobility has shrunk across all modes with 62 percent of respondents now traveling less than before COVID-19. However, their trips taken and commuting are slowly picking up again in all regions. But consumers do not expect big changes in their post-crisis behavior as compared to pre-crisis.

An exception to this seems to be intercity travel, for which travel by private car is becoming a more attractive option. Consumers around the world expect to shift from airplanes and trains to an increased use of private vehicles.

A third of consumers value constant access to a private vehicle more than they did before COVID-19, and half say they are open to extending their use of private vehicles beyond traveling in order to connect with the outside world in a safe way, such as for drive-in movie theaters.

It remains unclear whether car buying and mobility usage behaviors will return to a pre-crisis pattern, or whether some of their behavioral changes during the crisis will stick even after the pandemic subsides. As a result, all players in the mobility space need to closely monitor their particular local situation and adapt their go-to-market approach, sales, and overall strategy to those specific conditions.

This article will be continuously updated.

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