Part II: How Do Baby Boomers Buy Cars?

By: Whit Norrad   |   21 Feb 2022
Small SUV Mazda cx-5

Similar to my recent post about a 75-year-old family member purchasing a new SUV, this post highlights the buyer’s journey of a less-decided 77-year-old family member, her joys, complaints, and thought processes around buying a new vehicle in the age of digital retailing.

The purpose of this case study is to give dealers a glimpse into a specific demographic of shoppers, highlighting ways that salespeople can most effectively move these customers through the buying journey to purchase.
 

What Were Her Needs and Demographics?

My aunt is 77 years old, and has been retired for almost 20 years from a government job. She has supplemented her pension income with interest-based passion projects for as long as I can remember. Her credit is impeccable and she owns her existing vehicle outright: a 13-year-old Chevrolet Impala. 

She kept the Impala for so long because the Impala worked as well as it did on day one for over ten years. She has always been brand loyal to General Motors products and that was her second Impala. Her needs are more basic than they were 13 years ago: the grandkids are older and have vehicles on their own, and she is less “about town” than before. 

She was looking for a new car or SUV to replace the aging Impala, keep her safe with newer safety features, have a custom colour option, great fuel mileage, be small yet “high up,” and minimal bells and whistles when it came to connectivity. 

This would be a vehicle in a two-vehicle household, her husband having his own car (a Volkswagen Golf) that he uses.
 

First, She Considered Her Existing Brand

She looked to the Chevrolet + GM lineups for SUVs or cars that met her needs. To her dismay (perhaps incorrectly) she felt that they didn’t have SUVs small enough for her, nor any cars exciting enough after the Cruze’s departure, and immediately expanded her consideration set of brands to include new ones.

She looked online with her husband at the available options to discover this. When asked about the online experience, she said it was difficult but they figured it out. I would argue that they didn’t figure it out as much as they thought, because they didn’t find any suitable small SUV options.
 

 

Whit’s Analysis:

Just like last time, this puts a very bright spotlight on the need for easy-to-use websites at the national level. Better yet, it presents an opportunity for local dealerships to more heavily insert their content into the research part of the buyer’s journey by promoting (via paid ads, social media, etc.) model-focused, local content. 
 

Next, She Looked to Other Manufacturers

She quickly realized that the options for cars were dwindling and moved to only considered SUVs.

Once she thought that GM didn’t have a smaller SUV for her, she moved to other brands. How did she decide which brands to check out?

1. Google Search for terms like “Small SUV” 

2. Brand-specific searches that took her to national brand websites such as “Kia Soul” and “Nissan Rogue”

3. She lives in a city of roughly 60,000 people, so she knew where the dealerships for the specific brands were located, so she began to search for the dealerships by name to see if they had the SUVs she wanted to test drive

 

Whitney Norrad

WHIT'S ANALYSIS:

Just like last time, this puts a very bright spotlight on the need for easy-to-use websites at the national level. Better yet, it presents an opportunity for local dealerships to more heavily insert their content into the research part of the buyer's journey by promoting (via paid ads, social media, etc.) model-focused, local content.

 

Next, She Looked to Other Manufacturers

She quickly realized that the options for cars were dwindling and moved to only considered SUVs.

Once she thought that GM didn’t have a smaller SUV for her, she moved to other brands. How did she decide which brands to check out?

1. Google Search for terms like “Small SUV” 

2. Brand-specific searches that took her to national brand websites such as “Kia Soul” and “Nissan Rogue”

3. She lives in a city of roughly 60,000 people, so she knew where the dealerships for the specific brands were located, so she began to search for the dealerships by name to see if they had the SUVs she wanted to test drive

 

Whitney Norrad

WHIT'S ANALYSIS:

It's difficult to beat the manufacturer websites for incredibly basic and common terms when it comes to "make + model" searches. If we look at terms like "small SUV" and the make and models, this opens up a great content opportunity for a blog post about the best small SUVs for the shopping area, comparison pages between different brand's small SUVs.

Typically, you'll see me raving about the benefits of Google My Business for almost all aspects of the buyer's journey and this is no exception. While she didn't need GMB to discover what brands were around her, she did use their GMB profiles to find dealership websites.

 

Then, She “Booked” Test Drives - Not Online

That’s right - she picked up the phone and called the dealerships she was interested in visiting. 

Despite completing all of the initial research online and being moderately comfortable online (ex: often unsure, but will buy the occasional item online). She ended up choosing three local dealerships to call on the phone for booking a test drive:

1. Nissan

2. Mazda

3. Subaru
 

I’ll be honest, her choices surprised me. In my experience, my family’s older generations tend to stick to domestic vehicles. Why did she choose these three? 

checkmarkExpectations about price

checkmarkExpectations about value to price ratio 

checkmarkWide selection of SUV options to choose from
 

She called each of the above dealerships, respectively: 

1. Couldn’t reach anyone, walked in

2. Booked a test drive with someone over the phone

3. Couldn’t reach anyone, walked in
 

 

Whitney Norrad

WHIT'S ANALYSIS:

I guess you wouldn't be able to sat she booked test drives, because only one dealer was reachable via phone. Either way, she took an "offline" approach to visiting the dealership. This is a huge red flag for dealers - be sure you have a lead handling system for the phones and test if it's working!

It's also interesting to note that the deciding factors to her brand selection were based on both real life and online research. Her expectations around price were from friends and family, and then verified online. Her expectations around value-to-price were formed after finding information about the vehicles' features online.

 

The takeaways here are: 

1. That it’s important to have model landing pages, comparison pages, and blog posts that highlight the features of the products to the local market. The dealership that answered the phone was also the dealership that had relevant model pages on their website!

2. The value of Google My Business for obtaining information such as website + phone and making it easy for buyers to connect with your business.


Finally, Her Test Drive Experiences and SUV Purchase

She visited each dealership and test drove vehicles. Her buying decisions were based on factors both similar and different to those in the last post.

Her Dealership Test Drive Experiences

In one brand, she didn’t feel that the construction of the SUVs was “solid” enough. The bodies were too “plastic-y” and it didn’t make her feel safe on the road. She had a positive experience on the floor with the salesperson, a 35-year-old man who was knowledgeable about the products.

In the other, she enjoyed the “luxury” feeling and heft to the SUVs available. The salesperson she worked with was actually a client of Flex’s, which is cool (considering she had no idea!), and he shared a great deal of demographic similarities with her: age range, two-car household, expectations of customer service and integrity, and beyond. This was a positive experience for her as well.

For the third, she didn’t have a positive experience with the salesperson, feeling like she was constantly being passed over for other priorities. This may have skewed her opinion about the vehicles themselves.
 

Her Complaints

She was fortunate that she didn’t get passed over in favour of the salespeople speaking to her husband instead of her - even though he accompanied her to all of the test drives. Her experiences with salespeople were mixed, and the one that she didn’t enjoy simply wasn’t putting her first. 

The most interesting complaint that she had was the lack of available customization in vehicles. She was looking for a 4-cylinder engine, not a 6-cylinder. In the past, she had been able to custom-order vehicles that met her specific expectations. She was unable to customize much beyond controlled colours, trim, and accessories. This was a shock to her, as 20 or 30 years ago this was much more common to do. She couldn’t find a 4-cylinder engine on the lot for the SUV she liked, nor could she order one.

She felt that all of the SUVs looked the same; none stood out as visually more appealing than the others. She wanted a vehicle that showed her status and matched her age, and she didn’t feel like she could find one without choosing a Buick; something she wasn’t interested in.
 

Her Positive Reviews

She had mostly positive experiences with the salespeople she met, feeling that ? of them were knowledgeable and accommodating to her needs. She appreciated simple things like:

checkmarkThey connected her phone to the SUV via Bluetooth

checkmarkThey walked her through all of the “fancy” technology in the car

checkmarkShe was able to return to the dealership to get a second walkthrough 

checkmarkThe salespeople were patient with her, as she feels a little slower than the average customer based on her age

She felt that the way new brands were displaying online made them more accessible to her. Being able to research online helped her to better-understand what her choices were without physically shopping all over town.

She was impressed by all of the recent tech, even though she wouldn’t be confident using/trying all of it. She felt that the advancements across the board for safety were impressive. 

Despite shopping during the pandemic, she was satisfied with the selection available to her in-person.

 

Whitney Norrad

WHIT'S ANALYSIS:

It's always interesting to see how much conversions still rely on positive in-person experiences!

 

What Did She Pick?

In the end, she selected a 2021 Mazda CX-5. She felt safe and secure in the vehicle itself, while also feeling that it was the right size for her needs. The other manufacturers and dealers that she met with offer similarly-sized SUVs for her needs. The Nissan Rogue bears incredible similarity to the CX-5, for example.

She enjoyed the impact that her winning sales rep had on her, for some very specific reasons. The other dealerships dropped the ball when it came to the sales team members building relationships.

What I believe won her over that your dealership can learn from:

checkmarkThis dealership had a sales team member of a similar demographic; this made her comfortable

checkmarkShe was able to book her test drive via phone; she could communicate with them in a way that worked for her - not just for the dealership

checkmarkThey allowed her to return without seeming burdened

checkmarkThey offered appropriate customer solutions such as connecting her Bluetooth for her, and encouraging her to return with questions (relationship-building 101!)

checkmarkThe salesperson highlighted the nuances that made their brand’s offering better; this set the stage in her mind that the Mazda CX-5 was more luxurious and safe

checkmarkControlled options; they had her test drive a select few SUVs that met her requirements, after some fact-finding

checkmarkThey were patient and kind

checkmarkAccepting of many questions and offered solutions, compensating for the brand’s downfall of limited order options

They made the experience about her and her needs – nothing else!
 

Final Case Study Thoughts

Based on the recent buying experiences of my two senior-aged relatives (which continues to be a massive buyer segment in automotive, by the way), I would suggest the following takeaways for dealers and their salespeople when it comes to selling vehicles to an aging population:

and read online; take away the fancy stuff, unnecessary pop-ups, and jargon in favour of language and tools that the average user can easily navigate. In this blog post, Ray Gill of SpinCar gives practical tips on how to maximize the impact of your dealership’s “virtual showroom.”

2. You may not be able to control every aspect of your products, but you can control your dealership experience. Sure, you’re not going to paint a car yourself or rebuild an engine for a special request. But if you hold true to the belief that your dealership has the right car for anybody and a commitment to service, your sales team should be able to move metal.

As we saw in these case studies, it wasn’t always the vehicle that was a barrier to buy - it was the sales experience. To explore this further, take a listen to this episode of The Dealer Playbook, where automotive (and people) expert, Durran Cage, discusses how fostering a healthy employee culture is the key to success. 

3. Answer your phones. There is no nice way to put this: if your leads are not being handled effectively, then you are wasting your money trying to bring in more leads. Train your team well, hire experts to work with your salespeople on lead handling scripts (or take a look at our recent blog post on the topic), and model the type of lead handling behaviour you’d like to see at your dealership. And answer your phones!

4. Work with your team on customer profiling. Every customer’s needs will vary, but you can still do the initial research to discover and profile car-buyer segments - particularly those that match your specific geographical area. This is helpful for a few reasons:

checkmarkYour sales team can anticipate the needs of these customers and be prepared to show them the right car.

checkmarkYour team will be more easily able to anticipate and address concerns about specific vehicles.

checkmarkYou can bring in inventory that’s more likely to appeal to the demographics that your dealership serves.

Leverage Google My Business to work for you. Remember: many people still want to have an in-person experience when it comes to buying cars. Google My Business (GMB) is one of the easiest ways for people to discover, call, and locate your dealership. Keep your profile updated with correct information and photos, so potential customers can connect with you.