90% of Shoppers Research Online; Some OEMs Offer Scant Website Info

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According to a McKinsey study, 90% of car shoppers look to dealer and manufacturer websites in the early stages of researching a new car. Yet, in BestRide.com’s research, some provide much less information on their cars than they did in the early 2000s.

In general, manufacturer websites are designed to be the top of a funnel, driving customers to dealer websites where sales staff can hopefully convert interest to actual sales. But as the McKinsey study points out, consumers are hungry for information, especially in the early stages of shopping, and some are finding it harder to get that information from manufacturers than in the earliest days of the internet.

Volkswagen’s VW.com website is a good example of a site that was once rich with information, and has now been pared down to the bare minimum. The home page features links on the left: Models, Find a Match, Find a Dealer, Favorites and More.

The Models link intuitively links to all the models available in Volkswagen’s lineup.  Find a Match searches for matching inventory on dealer lots. Find a Dealer is a dealer locator and More includes information on incentives, financing and other information.


Click the Model link and there’s a large circle link that again, drives visitors to the dealer website. Clicking “Trims” should ostensibly provide detailed information on each individual trim available for a model, but that link only pushes visitors further down the homepage for a list of trims, with no corresponding links that provide deeper information. What little navigation there is only provides a few highlights for each trim level.

None of the links on VW.com provide any detailed information, specifications, available options or anything beyond MSRP pricing information at the trim level. There’s no “Build Your VW” link to see how a Golf or a Beetle would price out if you got the options you wanted. There’s also no comparison tool that allows you to see how the Passat stacks up against its logical competitors.


The Site Map at the very bottom of the page provides a graphic view just how much Volkswagen information wants to provide: Under “Features” there are six links describing a small handful of features on Volkswagen products.


Under Financial Services, though, Volkswagen provides 60 links, ranging anywhere from online bill payment to how to purchase the “Ding Shield Service Plan,” a form of prepaid vehicle maintenance that covers parking lot dents and scratches.

If a shopper wants any of this additional information, she has to leave VW.com and visit a third-party website that provides it, opening the opportunity to learn more about competitive products.

Since dealers aren’t required by the manufacturer to conform to any aggressive standards on their own websites, potential customers use dealer sites more for learning about inventory at a particular store than researching things like specifications or comparing against similar products.

Given the fact that 90 percent of shoppers in the early part of their research for a new car are hitting the manufacturer website, it makes sense that it should provide as much information as possible. That’s exactly what VW.com did as far back as 2003.

Volkswagen-Website-2002-Wayback-BestrideUsing the Internet Archive Wayback Machine at web.archive.org, you can see snapshots of Volkswagen’s website all the way back to the first Volkswagen web pages. In the early days up until about 2002, Volkswagen provided a limited set of information about its models, but in 2003, it stepped up its game to provide a fairly complete set of data, including standard and optional equipment, a “Build Your Own” tool, a vehicle comparison tool, rebates and incentives, 360-degree tours and photo galleries. It was essentially a one-stop-shop for all things Volkswagen.

Not providing specific model information runs counter to the information provided in the McKinsey study from February of 2014. In the early 2000s, dealers feared the prospect of online car buying that would cut them completely out of the loop. But according to the McKinsey study, new car showrooms are still critical to the car-buying process, simply because consumers want to drive the cars before they pay for them. “Most customers will always want to physically experience the vehicle before purchase as it is typically one of their largest investments.”

McKinsey’s 2013 Retail Innovation Consumer Survey showed that over 80 percent of new-car and almost 100 percent of used-car customers start shopping for cars online. Nearly 90 percent of these customers use “an extensive variety of online sources – OEM and dealer Web sites, social media, blogs, and forums” to learn more about the products.

Consumers are NOT getting that information from their dealers, utilizing the dealership as the place where they drive and finally purchase those cars. OEMs that don’t take the opportunity to provide as much information as possible are missing out, accordion to McKinsey. “OEMs and dealers need to fight an online battle to earn the right to get that one chance” to get a consumer to commit to buying a car. “Many customers find these third-party Web sites very useful for comparing different models side by side,” the study states, “making it hard for OEMs and dealers to compete for attention in the online space.”

Consumers aren’t looking to dealers for technical specs or side-by-side comparisons. “Customers expect dealers to know about more than just the latest models and technical features. They also come armed with questions about new applications and their connectivity to other devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers.”

This also comes on the heels of information published in Automotive News that suggests that even millennials aren’t shopping for cars on social media sites. “Only 5 percent of millennials surveyed said they used social media to shop for vehicles,” the article suggests.  “Although they are bypassing social media, millennials are making the Internet and mobile devices mainstays of car shopping. Ninety-five percent of millennials car shop online, spending online 82 percent of the average 17.6 hours they take to research and buy a car. By comparison, all 1,900 respondents on average took 15.5 hours to research and buy a car, with 75 percent of the time online.”

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.


  1. I totally emailed VW about their new site and the lack of a build feature, which is just about the only feature I ever use on a makers website. Aside from looking up some random tech spec, which is also usually well-hidden.

    The VW website sucks balls.

  2. Are there any updates (2015) to this study / report? Similar reports? I am researching the percentage of consumers / potential buyers that use DEALER Websites to research make/models. I am looking for quanitative data. I see that this study says ‘most’ don’t go to dealership websites to research specific models, but I am looking to quanitify that without doing an independent study.

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