Who’s buying a car during the pandemic?

Some Canadians are still interested in buying new vehicles. An IMI report reveals how they're researching and shopping.

The automotive sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with nearly all brands seeing steep year-over-year sales drops over the last five months due to a combination of economic anxiety and physical disruption to the car-buying process. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any prospective buyers.

Global research firm IMI polled more than 2,000 current vehicle owners and over 900 people who intend to purchase within the next 18 months in Canada, comparing polling from February with surveys fielded during the pandemic.

IMI found that while sales have been low recently, there may be pent-up demand for new cars, as the intent to buy over the next 18 months has actually remained relatively stable. Even some current car owners may be looking to upgrade over the next 18 months: intent to buy among current car and truck owners has dipped slightly to 24% each, but intent among SUVs owners has actually increased from 22% to 27%.

Demographically, those who intend to buy a vehicle over the next 18 months are more likely to be male and under 38 years old (with 6% more millennials intending to buy since the beginning of the pandemic). Households with kids are also more likely to buy a new car, but intent among those with children under six years old has gone up by 7% to 47%, while intent among those with children seven and older has dipped by 6% to 69%.

Unsurprisingly, economic stability is the top concern for 55% of those intending to buy a vehicle, an increase of 15% compared to February, which may be why those interested in new vehicles are waiting to make the purchase. This is despite the fact that employment levels have remained steady among nearly three-quarters of those in this group. They are also more likely to keep a closer eye on their finances: 70% said they are checking finance apps at least once a week, compared to 48% who said the same in February.

They are also keeping a closer eye on other shopping habits, with 67% saying they are being more thoughtful about spending and 66% saying they have been cooking more as a way to save money. While casual online browsing for potential purchases remains a top interest for 60% of potential car buyers, that has gone down by 6% since the beginning of the pandemic.

Months in isolation has also made car buyers more interested in socializing with those outside of their own home: 68% list talking with parents among their top interests right now (up by 4%), with 65% saying the same about connecting with friends over social channels (up by 6%).

New car buyers state online research across various platforms is the biggest influence on general (non vehicle) purchase behaviour. However, general online research has gone down by 13%, while recommendations from family have gone up 18% and social media research has gone up by 16%. In particular, 27% more potential car buyers said they bought something they saw on Instagram since before the pandemic.