November’s SMMT new car registration figures showed the new car market down by 27.4% for the month. “Though this was bad news for the industry, the drop took place during a period in which all dealerships in England were required to keep showrooms closed. Compared to the first lockdown which saw registrations plummet by 97%, the fall in sales was not as significant as some were expecting”, the latest What Car? Insight reads.

Online buying is one of the reasons behind the strong performance in November. With restrictions and closures in place throughout much of the year, retailers and OEMs have invested significantly into online platforms, be they virtual showrooms that connect sales executives to potential buyers via webcams, or brand new online portals that allow buyers to configure and order their next vehicle without setting a foot in a showroom.

What Car? polled 4790 in-market buyers, looking at how attitudes towards online buying have changed: today, 28% of in-market buyers say they would be comfortable buying their next car entirely online, while 35% would be happy to view a car through a virtual tour rather than visit a dealership before deciding on a purchase.

Nearly half of those willing to buy their next vehicle online say that they currently buy everything else this way so a car is a logical next step, while 28% appreciate the fact that they can avoid dealing with sales executives and 26% feel that they can haggle the price better online.

These figures represent a significant rise from where the industry was pre-Covid. Last year, an independent survey by YouGov found that 16% of all age groups were likely to buy their next vehicle entirely online, What Car? indicates.

With the share of potential online buyers nearly doubling in 12 months, the research shows that, while online retail is unlikely to ever fully replace showrooms, it is becoming a “viable alternative” for a growing number of car buyers.