Report: Auto Sites Stall in Effort to Determine Buying Behavior

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Though carmakers, dealers and independent auto sites collectively invest more than $1 billion yearly trying to turn online auto shoppers into buyers, a study released yesterday by Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, states that auto site owners underuse their own traffic data and do not understand how mapping online shoppers' behavior from site to site can provide clues to future purchases.

The report, "Carbuyers' Paths to Purchase," is based on Forrester's analysis of three months of continuous online behavior data and buyer-reported purchase data provided by comScore Networks. The data is extracted from comScore's Global Network of 1.5 million opt-in Internet users.

To find the correlation between online shopping behavior and car buying, Forrester observed 78,000 individual consumers' paths through 170 auto sites and interviewed 17 auto site owners and software providers. Behavior patterns such as frequency and intensity of research sessions and cross-site comparison shopping were strong purchase predictors.

By following user paths from site to site, Forrester also found that:

· Online auto marketing and retailing continues to see strong growth. While independent sites remain popular with consumers, original equipment manufacturer sites have surpassed them with a 59 percent increase in traffic in 2001.

· Roughly one in four auto site visitors buys a car within three months.

· Repeat visitors are rare. Sixty-four percent of buyers complete their research in five sessions or fewer.

· Auto shoppers' Web research paths predict their probability of vehicle purchase. On some paths, 46 percent are near-term buyers.

The report also found that the theory of car shoppers going through a "marketing funnel" doesn't map to behavior. Conventional wisdom suggests that shoppers first visit information sites, then OEMs, then e-tailer or dealer sites as they go from awareness to interest, desire and action.

Mapping consumer data reveals a messier, more complex consideration process.

"Common assumptions about customer behavior when shopping for vehicles online are wrong," said Mark Dixon Bünger, senior analyst, Forrester Research. "For example, loyalty and repeat visits are actually an anti-predictor of purchase. Most people who buy come in short, intense bursts, and don't hang out on auto sites."

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