Cox Automotive’s annual Car Buyer Journey (CBJ) Study was released today, revealing that satisfaction with the overall vehicle shopping and buying experience improved in 2023 after declining in both 2021 and 2022. Car buying satisfaction, as the study indicates, peaked in 2020. The 2023 Cox Automotive Car Buyer Journey Study shows that improved inventory levels, the return of discounting, and a further proliferation of an omnichannel approach to vehicle buying – seamlessly combining online and at-dealership activities – are delivering higher levels of satisfaction and reducing the time required to purchase a vehicle.
The annual CBJ study from Cox Automotive looks at several attributes tied to vehicle buying in America and focuses specifically on new- and used-vehicle buyer satisfaction. The annual survey considers vehicle buying from multiple angles: There’s a generational analysis, a CPO deep dive, a look at satisfaction with the auto financing process, and even consideration of how electric vehicle buyers differ from buyers of traditional automobiles (internal combustion engine or ICE vehicles). The 2023 Car Buyer Journey results were derived from surveys of nearly 3,000 consumers who bought a new or used vehicle in a 12-month period ending August 2023. The survey was conducted in August and September 2023.
The study suggests that car buying in America continues to be driven by households with above-average incomes: The average household income (HHI) in the survey period for a new-vehicle buyer was $115,000 and was $96,000 for a used-vehicle buyer. The survey also reveals that EV buyers were notably younger than average (41 years old versus 52 for all new-vehicle buyers) and higher earners. The average HHI for an EV buyer was $140,000.
In the 2023 survey, 68% of buyers considered both new and used vehicles, up from 64% in the previous report; 78% of used-vehicle buyers considered a new vehicle during the shopping process. Buyers typically considered two vehicles and visited two dealerships. Nearly 80% of shoppers visited a third-party website during their buying journey (e.g., Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book (both Cox Automotive companies), Edmunds.com, or CarGurus). Electric vehicle (EV) buyers were more likely to visit third-party sites, particularly first-time EV buyers. The report also reveals that fewer shoppers visited automaker websites or used online retailers (e.g., Carvana) compared to 2021 and 2022.
Key triggers for a vehicle purchase continue to be the aging of an existing vehicle, which was true for both new- and used-vehicle buyers. In 2023, more buyers were adding a vehicle to their household: 15% of buyers noted the purchase was triggered by the need for an additional vehicle in the stable, up from 11% in 2022, a 36% increase. Recent studies from Cox Automotive also suggest that consumers are putting a higher value on vehicle ownership, not just transportation. This trend is likely a result of changes in attitude following the global COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, 43% of consumers suggested that transportation is necessary, but ownership is not. In more recent surveys, that number had dropped to 35%.
Satisfaction With the Car-Buying Journey Improved; More Efficient Processes Help Make the Experience Seamless.
The 2023 Car Buyer Journey Study presents a noteworthy increase in overall satisfaction, with 69% of consumers being highly satisfied with the process compared to 61% in the 2022 study. Contributing factors include heightened product availability, the return of incentives, and a continued shift toward a more digital process. Notably, satisfaction among used-vehicle buyers increased from 58% to 68%, while new-vehicle buyers reported a 73% satisfaction rate, up from 70% the previous year.
Retail outlets — dealerships — continue to deliver levels of satisfaction that many critics may find surprising: In 2023, 74% of all vehicle buyers and 79% of new-vehicle buyers reported elevated satisfaction levels with their dealership experience. Satisfaction with the retail experience among new-vehicle buyers matched an all-time high of 79%, equal to the level reached in 2020. Positive feedback extends to crucial touchpoints such as the test drive experience (82%), vehicle pickup and delivery process (79%), and interaction with the sales team (77%).
“There is an often-cited narrative that suggests going to a car dealer is worse than a root canal,” said Isabelle Helms, vice president of Research and Market Intelligence at Cox Automotive. “Our research and data, however, suggest that this is simply not the case. In fact, 79% of new-vehicle buyers were highly satisfied with the experience provided by their local automobile dealer.”
While affordability remains a concern, the latest CBJ does suggest the situation is improving. Regarding the price paid, 49% of buyers report paying more than expected, down from 54% in the 2022 study. Dissatisfaction with the price paid was highest among used-vehicle buyers. Better inventory levels were a key driver here, as vehicle supply levels in the U.S. improved consistently month over month throughout the second half of 2022 and all of 2023, according to Cox Automotive’s vAuto Available Inventory database. More inventory and more options for buyers also triggered many dealers and automakers to increase incentives. Lower prices and a sense that the purchase “was a good deal” helped improve overall satisfaction.
With Better Digital Tools, the Buying Process Has Become Faster and More Efficient.
When it comes to car buying in America, the desired state is omnichannel, not entirely digital. According to the latest survey, only 7% of car buyers in 2023 completed 100% of the steps online, while 43% completed steps in a mix of online and in-person (at the dealership), and 50% completed all the steps in person. Used-vehicle buyers were more likely to cite in-person as the solution.
When asked about the desired state and how they’d likely complete their next purchase, 71% of consumers suggested that it would be an omnichannel approach, which seamlessly combines both online and in-person activity. Twenty-one percent of buyers suggested their ideal vehicle purchase process would be entirely online, while only 8% said they would do it entirely in person.
Interestingly, electric vehicle buyers are already living in the future: In the most recent study cycle, 69% bought their vehicle through an omnichannel approach, far higher than traditional ICE buyers at 39%, and 16% of EV buyers bought entirely online. Only 15% of EV buyers pursued an in-person process. Notably, EV buyers completed the process faster than ICE buyers and were more satisfied with the overall experience, suggesting that an omnichannel approach is a key driver of car-buying satisfaction.
One reason the shopping experience improved in 2023 over 2022 was that the time required from start to finish was shortened by more than an hour. In the most recent survey, new buyers reported spending approximately 11 hours and 45 minutes from beginning to end, down more than 80 minutes from the prior year. In comparison, used-vehicle buyers reported spending more than 14 hours, a one-hour decrease. A relatively quick experience is a key driver of satisfaction.
EV buyers, who spent less than 11 hours in the process, were the most satisfied with the process duration. Seventy-six percent of EV buyers reported being highly satisfied with the time required, while 59% of new ICE buyers reported being satisfied with the time required, a drop from 2022. EV buyers were more likely to take an omnichannel approach, combining online and in-person activities, which greatly reduced the time required and, in turn, improved overall satisfaction.
“Year after year, our studies suggest that consumers are not pursuing an entirely digital experience,” added Vanessa Ton, senior manager of Market and Customer Research. “Rather, we believe car buyers want a seamless experience where they can start the process at home, shop, fill out any required forms, and then go to the dealership, test drive a car, complete the deal, and learn about their new purchase. Dealerships that fully embrace an omnichannel approach are the most successful, as the process becomes more efficient for everyone involved and delivers happier buyers as well.”