Is it time for dealerships to build strategies to better attract and engage women within the dealership and online?

By Paul Smith, Director, Traka Automotive

Dealerships have long known that women car buyers approach purchasing decisions differently to their male counterparts, and that some female-friendly 'customisation' of the 'traditional' showroom layouts and sales patois might well help secure more sales. There are degrees of separation here. For couples, a new car is often for joint or family use, so both parties are naturally going to have input into the purchasing decision. For family cars in particular, savvy sellers have already recognised that women often have the casting vote. Brave (or foolhardy) is the husband who decides on a shared family motor without seeking his spouse's counsel. However if women are buying for themselves, the dynamics are clearly different.

How best to respond? Gender-specific sales targeting is certainly well worth thinking about if the figures, suggesting that women are claiming a higher proportion of new vehicles sales, are to be believed. So what's the problem? Arguably in the past, the snag with attempting to do things differently for female customers was that dealers were not quite sure whether the effort would be rewarded. Very few took the plunge to re-design dealerships or adjust the style of sales agent-customer interaction to suit women better. However, we began to see improvements in dealerships’ ‘look and feel’ to make these places more female-friendly at the prestige end of the market more than 15 years ago. Will this trend go more mainstream now or will the focus of change in mid-market brands instead be on targeting online marketing to appeal to women better?

According to recent figures from Buyacar, women constituted the fastest-growing segment of the online-only car purchasing market last year, with growth in the number of women buying new and used vehicles without visiting a dealership at all, twice that of males. Moreover, Buyacar saw a 58 per cent increase in the number of women making a car purchase online – that's compared to just 29 per cent of males.

Marketing in a more targeted way to women is also forcing marketing innovations by car manufacturers themselves. For example, towards the end of last year, Ford joined forces with the Home Shopping Channel (HSC). Here the OEM offered HSC viewers the exclusive opportunity to purchase models from its Fusion, Escape and Edge ranges at an advantageous pre-set price. Dealers note that these were sold at pre-set, non-negotiable prices. The Ford Preferred Price Event, including a two-year complimentary Ford Protect Premium Maintenance Plan.

We don’t know if the auto-maker stumped-up any dosh for the privilege of showcasing its wares to HSN's 95 million US viewers in prime afternoon time slots, nor do we know the number of transactions closed during these slots; and although the broadcaster is open to any gender of shopper, Ford made it abundantly clear it partnered with HSN in order to reach a predominantly female market.

HSN offers us a unique opportunity to reach a close-knit community of women, and to provide them with a simple, meaningful car-buying experience," commented Ford's US marketing director Chantel Lenard. "We know our female car buyers appreciate our quality, safe, and efficient vehicles – but the car buying process can be intimidating.

This was an intriguing throwaway remark, and one wonders what conventional Ford dealerships would think of it. However, it did hint at both a reality and an opportunity.  The scope to sell more cars to women buyers exists if some simple inhibitors can be addressed while applying some sensitivity in execution. One concern might be that by declaring to treat females differently to males, dealerships could be accused of implicit sexism – potentially alienating the very audience they hope to engage with.  Second, by adapting to women's supposed dislike of drawn-out negotiations  over price, extras, terms for example, dealerships maybe even leave themselves open to accusations of gender discrimination.

Longer term, gender-based challenges might await car dealers selling autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. According to a survey by financial advice firm NerdWallet, women have more safety concerns about self-driving cars than men. Only 37 per cent of women surveyed by NerdWallet expressed any interest in owning a self-driving car, whereas half of men were keen to explore use of these cars.

More than half (55 per cent) expressed concern about the safety of self-driving cars, while only 37 per cent of men were worried about their safety. The question then is: are male drivers really less daunted by the potential risks of 'driving' semi-autonomous cars, or just less open to expressing their emotions on the subject?

Is now the time to begin thinking about how to remodel the in-dealership experience to suit women better? Or will you be hard-targeting them with offers online; or instead, restyling smaller footprint dealerships and placing them into retail centres alongside high street brands that are likely to be frequented by more women than men? Groups will be adopting different plans but there is no doubt that change is underway in this area.