If you’re shopping for a car, your first stop may be your smartphone.
As consumers grow increasingly comfortable buying smaller items such as clothes and concert tickets from their mobile devices, some are also using their smartphones and tablets for big ticket purchases.
“There’s this huge upheaval in terms of mobile usage and mobile behavior,” said Jeff Birkeland, vice president of product management for High Gear Media, which publishes The Car Connection site and app. “People are looking to not only research cars, but actually take action and connect to a dealer and do some business on mobile.”
Online companies are putting the entire car shopping experience on a mobile device, replacing the lengthy weekend trudge between dealerships with an afternoon on the couch with an iPad. The shift to mobile has armed consumers with more information and resources to prepare for a sizable and emotional purchase. Shoppers can research new and used car purchases before going to the dealer, and with some mobile apps, even buy a used car.
Rodney Bonachita of Daly City, Calif., did much of his car shopping on his smartphone while he prepared last year to buy a 2009 Mazda. By the time he showed up at the dealership, he said, he was ready to write a check. He said, “Going there armed with information — I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
With growing interest in car research apps, mobile devices are expected to become a go-to resource for 87 percent of car consumers, according to a 2012 study from Briabe, a mobile advertising company that surveyed more than 1,600 people planning to purchase a car within 12 months.
The mobile app from The Car Connection offers vehicle ratings, reviews, buying guides, connections to local dealerships, financing and insurance advice and recall warnings. The company, which also has a desktop website, gets about 35 percent of its traffic from mobile, Birkeland said. That number spikes on the weekend and during televised sports events — especially the Super Bowl — when car advertisements air.
“It took us a little bit by surprise, because it is a big purchase,” Birkeland said.
Edmunds.com, the online car-buying guide, saw its mobile website views increase six-fold from March 2011 to March 2013, and its separate mobile app saw 14 times as many views over roughly the same time period.
“We’re definitely seeing the shift to mobile,” said Stephen Gandee, vice president of mobile and personalization at Edmunds.com.
Visitors spend an average of four minutes on the website, but about eight minutes each time they open the smartphone app and 12 minutes on the iPad app, he said.
Cars.com also offers a mobile app that let users search new and used car listings, schedule a test drive, check out reviews and compare models.
Car buyers using mobile apps can look for their next purchase between running errands or while making dinner, and on the weekend, they can use a tablet and not be chained to a desk. And shoppers are bringing these apps to the dealership, keeping their smartphones and tablets handy to show salespeople competing offers or lower suggested prices.
Shoppers aren’t using mobile only for car research — they’re buying used cars on their smartphones, too. The site eBay sells more than 11,000 pre-owned vehicles each week through its online auctions to shoppers using their mobile device, and traffic is so high that the company created an eBay Motors app, according to spokeswoman Amanda Coffee.
Some technology companies disagree that mobile apps help car shoppers.
“It’s a very infrequent purchase,” said Grant Feek, chief executive officer of Tred, a Seattle-based website that delivers a car to your house to test drive and refers you to a local dealership that sells it. “Plus, the median age [of car shoppers] is too old. The average 40-year-old in our market is not tech savvy enough to download an app for a one-time purchase.”