While buying 40% of all cars in America, women still remain underserved when shopping for a car – a key finding from research we conducted with over 7,000 female shoppers at Cars.com. I witnessed some of this at a personal level. When I was a child, my mother and I went to a dealer to buy a car she had carefully chosen. On the lot, the salesman kept saying he was a magician, and jocosely insisted he could make me disappear, much to our dismay. The interaction was somewhat embarrassing, as my mother apprehensively evaluated the transaction. She bought a used VW model that unfortunately turned out to be a lemon.

Today, in reviewing a series of qualitative and quantitative studies, we focused on the female car shopper to understand her needs, opinions and experiences by means of a holistic approach. In a nutshell, car shopping could be so much more satisfying for her, with ample opportunity for automakers, dealers and third-party sites to improve engagement and win in this emerging consumer segment. Sixty percent are sole decision makers, open to engage with ad content that matters to her. In the meantime, notwithstanding the variety of backgrounds and mindsets, female car shoppers share common experiences, which can be summarized in three major points.

Male-centric advertising is irrelevant to her. Although nearly three-quarters of female car shoppers are open to consider make and model suggestions, advertising isn’t addressing her immediate needs. As she looks for information and inspiration, how relevant are comedic TV ads featuring an old man chasing a Viagra pill? Not only is the tone-and-feel of most auto ads off the mark, typical messaging promotes features that aren’t top priorities: instead of horsepower or high-tech gadgetry, she wants to hear about value, reliability and a design that suits her lifestyle. Bottom line is that many models would be more appealing to women if properly communicated to her.

Research is a confidence builder. She researches a lot, in fact, most of her time car shopping is spent online. But what makes her a prudent shopper must be noted. Exploring and learning about cars isn’t exactly a hobby for her, but a process for building confidence and enabling her to scrutinize all of the possibilities, such as car fit, financing, trade-in, and dealership. In the process, she listens to family, friends and experts. Most female car shoppers want simple, trustworthy and visually-inspiring content that encourages her to make the right decision.

Dealership anxiety. Not only does she have to reinterpret irrelevant advertising and do diligent car research, the fact remains that many female car shoppers feel anxious about visiting a dealership. “I dread going to the dealership and avoid it as much as possible,” a respondent shared with us. They carefully read dealer reviews, and wait to share contact information. When she arrives at the dealership, the experience can be frustrating. As another woman poignantly shared, “I feel that I’m treated like I don’t know anything about cars when I go by myself.” No wonder they do extra research to feel able to scrutinize unwanted offers. They want to be listened to, and negotiate positively towards a fair deal.

Improving engagement with this emerging consumer is a feasible, strategic opportunity for many auto marketers. Digital ad technology now enables us to develop targeted one-on-one campaigns without alienating male consumers. Research resources must provide clear information and visual inspiration. And hiring saleswomen would fulfill the advisory role that female shoppers expect from a great dealership experience. Yet, beyond tactical and strategic measures, a new holistic understanding about the female car shopper is paramount. It’s less about creating gender-specific solutions but eradicating old wrong assumptions about female car shoppers, addressing her needs to be informed, inspired and respected as an auto consumer.

— Tony D’Andrea, PhD
Senior Insights Strategist, Cars.com.