What you need to know to turn used-car shoppers into buyers

First commandment to turn shoppers into buyers

Know thy customer.

Three simple words that are easier said than done for dealerships that sell used cars.

“As dealers, you want to match up the right car with the right customer as quickly as possible,” says the introduction to a CarStory white paper based on responses to a recent survey of used-car shoppers. “It helps you move cars, and it helps turn shoppers into repeat, happy customers.”

So what did CarStory find were reasons Americans were seeking a used car instead of new?

The top two reasons far and away, followed by the percentage of shoppers who chose each, were: save money, 60 percent, and get a good deal, 53 percent. In fact, four lesser reasons also made some reference to savings, including getting more features for the money, 26 percent; reducing insurance costs, 19 percent; minimizing depreciation, 17 percent, and avoiding hidden fees, 13 percent.

Value-based propositions

Only two of the top eight reasons cited by CarStory (surveyed shoppers were allowed to select more than one reason) involved something other than saving money. Those were getting a special model you can’t buy new, 32 percent, and getting exactly what you see, 26 percent.

So, first and foremost, be sure you are making a strong value-based proposition.

In “How to convert used car shoppers to buyers,” CarStory also reported that eight in 10 used-car buyers (81 percent) want to know vehicle condition, followed by accident history (77), service history (75), listing price (74), value of the vehicle (73), make (72) and mileage (71). Also important are price compared to the market, dealership’s reputation, selling prices of similar vehicles, mileage compared to similar vehicles, comfort features, cost of ownership and fuel efficiency.

Vehicle descriptions matter

But dealer vehicle descriptions fall short for most shoppers, according to the survey, in which 47 percent of women and just 38 percent of men felt they got all the information needed to make a decision.

“Understanding what information your customers need to make a purchasing decision can help move them along the buying process,” says CarStory, which provides independent reports about the value of individual vehicles and features in specific markets.

Understanding what customers are feeling, meanwhile, can take a positive experience even further.

CarStory found that used-car shoppers who answered the survey were mostly excited (49 percent) or optimistic (44 percent) and, to a lesser extent, satisfied (28 percent) or happy (23 percent).

The trick, of course, is to make sure they stay that way during and after the sale.

The most important three-letter word

The WOW factor.

That’s what car dealers must achieve in the used-car sales process.

Car shoppers today go through a lot of steps before deciding what they’re going to purchase, so grabbing and holding their attention are major challenges for dealerships.

“This implies that dealers have just a few opportunities to really wow potential buyers,” says CarStory, which conducted a three-week survey of used-car shoppers, and not much time to do it.

“Today’s auto shoppers use 24 research touch points in their car-buying process,” says CarStory, citing a Kelley Blue Book report, in a white paper, How to Convert Used Car Shoppers to Buyers. “Every time a consumer leaves a dealer website to find more information, it is a lost opportunity.”

Following are the most common steps from CarStory’s own map of the buying process, in order, with the percentage of shoppers who referred to it in the survey (most frequent in boldface):

  1. Search for vehicles online, 86 percent
  2. Calculate the amount I can afford to spend, 68 percent
  3. Ask friends and family about purchasing a car, 36 percent
  4. Read online reviews, 53 percent
  5. Check vehicles’ market value, 59 percent
  6. Narrow down the search, 52 percent
  7. Consider other vehicles, 60 percent
  8. Sell or trade another vehicle, 31 percent
  9. Ask a dealer for recommendations, 14 percent
  10. Read auto magazines, 13 percent
  11. Check accident history, 59 percent
  12. Test drive a vehicle, 74 percent
  13. Call dealer to pre-negotiate, 20 percent
  14. Negotiate price at dealer, 56 percent
  15. Negotiating financing at dealer, 41 percent
  16. Drive the car home, 76 percent
  17. Share vehicle purchase on social networks, 7 percent

The process offers a key lesson to dealerships selling used cars, according to CarStory.

“The best way to capture most shoppers [is to] engage them in the online research phase,” says CarStory, referring to the most-typical first step by consumers in the used-car-purchase process. “But how long do dealers have to capture a buyer’s attention before that buyer moves from the online research phase to, say, Step No. 6, narrowing the search? Not long.”

“To better understand consumer attention span … we looked at the average number of search results pages (SRPs) and vehicle detail pages (VDPs) that consumers across our marketplaces view,” says CarStory. “And then we looked at how many leads, on average, consumers submit.”

The results show that out of 7.8 million unique consumers who viewed SRPs across 350 marketplaces, 4.1 million made it to at least one VDP, generating a total of 182,533 leads, says CarStory.

That means eight visits to your website generate five VDP views and just one or two leads. So, go out and wow your prospects, then be prepared to make the most of those results.

And now the most important number

Consider nine your lucky number.

So suggests a white paper on results of a customer survey by CarStory.

“From our survey, we learned that most people who buy a used vehicle do so to save money, or at least to get more bang for their buck while minimizing depreciation,” says CarStory in its report. “Based on this, we looked at ways that dealers could price vehicles to improve consumer interest.”

And what pricing insight did the survey provide? That the number “9” is better than “0.” Seriously.

“We looked at ways that dealers could price vehicles to improve consumer interest,” says CarStory in its report. “We started with an obvious question: What effect does ending a price in 9 have on consumer interest and conversion? This, of course, is the oldest trick in the book and one that is detailed in the journal of Quantitative Marketing and Economics.”

Yes, it really works

“We found that dealers that end their prices in 99 convert shoppers from the search results pages to vehicle detail pages much more often,” reports CarStory. “Prices that end in 99 versus 00 showed a 16 percent lift in SRP-to-VDP conversion. Prices that end in 999 performed nine percent better than those ending in 000. … Take away: Always end your price with multiple 9s.”

But, apparently, the number nine isn’t just important in used-vehicle pricing, according to CarStory. It also comes into play in the number of photos dealerships should use to maximize impact on shoppers.

“The first best practice when it comes to images: represent the car accurately … [because] misrepresenting the car online will just lead to disappointment and frustration in person,” says CarStory. “Second best practice: Use fewer images [on non-dealer websites] that show the vehicle highlights, including the hero shot, dashboard, seating configurations and key features.”

Post fewer images?

And by fewer images, CarStory apparently means nine. Not 10. Not 20. Certainly not 30. Just 9.

“Using fewer photos may seem counterintuitive, but we looked at lead submission rates on vehicles based on the number of images the posting contained,” said the CarStory report. “We found that nine images offered optimal lead submission potential. Postings with nine images saw a 50 percent higher lead submission rate than those without any images, 56 percent higher lead submission rate than those with 20 images [and] 71 percent higher lead submission rate than those with 30 images.”

“It appears that consumers are suffering from image fatigue,” said CarStory. “We see some listings with 40 images. When you share so many images it forces the consumer to navigate the picture carousel to find the ones that best tell the vehicle’s story.”

Now, what’s your lucky number?

When words matter most for sales funnel

Words matter.

Especially when you’re asking someone to take action on your website that keeps them engaged (increasing your chances to convert them into a customer).

“The first step towards acquiring a new customer [is] getting them to raise their hand and take an action,” says CarStory in its white paper. “Providing the right call to action (CTA) is yet another way you can convert a shopper to a buyer by winning their attention and their clicks.”

CarStory even compared specific CTA words and phrases to see which words generated bigger responses.

The calls to action to which shoppers are most likely to respond by category?

Double-check that CTA

They are “Check price” (about 36 percent of shoppers survey), “More information” (about 27 percent), “Contact the dealer” (about 14 percent) and “Schedule a test drive” (10 percent). Some CTAs that didn’t fare as well: “Check availability,” “Make an offer,” “Save/add to wish list” and “Request financing.”

But even knowing the right categories for your CTAs doesn’t mean your work is done.

“In the price category, the CTA ‘Check price’ outperformed every other option by three to 10 times,” CarStory said, with about 46 percent of respondents saying that would move them to action. Fails included “Is this a good deal,” “Get an e-quote,” “Free price check,” “Get an awesome deal” and others.

“If you are using anything but ‘Check price,’ now would be a good time to update your website.”

In other CTA categories, similar action wording did best with prospective customers:

More information: “View details” was scored 31 percent better than “Vehicle details,” even more over “See more details,” “Get information” or “Request more information.”

Contact the dealer: “Email dealer” generated a greater response than “Call dealer” or “Contact dealer.” Added CarStory: “It is interesting to note that consumers flagged ‘email dealer’ … when, in fact, most sites don’t allow you to send an email, but rather have you submit a lead form.”

Scheduling a test drive: “Schedule a test drive” outscored “I want to test drive” or, simply, “Test drive.”

Or, as CarStory says: “Calls to action – they are not all created equally.”

We’ve made you a list, so check it twice

We know what you’re thinking …

Now that you have read the first four parts of this blog post, what you really need is a checklist that hits the high points of the series to ensure that you are making the most it.

(Although, for details, you still will have to go back and read parts 1 to 4 above as needed.)

The checklist is divided into four parts – pricing, value, attention and merchandising. Here’s the checklist from the CarStory white paper and where you can find details:


  • Understand where each vehicle falls in the market and make sure you’re highlighting the points consumers value most (Part 1).
  • Always end prices with a 99 or 999 (Part 3).


  • Never miss an opportunity to highlight “must have” features (Part 2).
  • Always include seller comments and remember to highlight reconditioning details (white paper).
  • Provide consumers as much of the information as they need, otherwise they will leave your site or your lot and find it somewhere else (Part 2).


  • Always include the right images, but only nine to 10 at most for your marketplace partners. You should absolutely include all images directly on your website (Part 3).
  • Update your calls to action to include a strong verb-plus-direct-object construction (Part 4).
  • Don’t overwhelm the user with too many CTAs – focus on the ones that will move buyers through the process (Part 4).


  • Focus your merchandising efforts on the [top five] areas that matter most to consumers (Part 1):
  • Vehicle condition
  • Accident history
  • Service history
  • Listing price
  • Value

“Dealers can do a lot to improve the way they communicate to consumers with better information, pricing and merchandising,” says CarStory. “By doing so you will help consumers move through the sales process more efficiently, help your inventory stand apart and, ultimately, drive more sales.”

This checklist and this blog post should help you get and stay on track.



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