The nation’s network of auto dealers has not exactly embraced electromobility, as we explained in a recent feature article. The Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis has released a detailed study of the issue, which finds that buyers of plug-in vehicles (PEVs) tend to be far less satisfied with the dealer purchase experience than buyers of legacy vehicles -with the notable exception of Tesla buyers.
In New Car Dealers and Retail Innovation in California’s Plug-In Electric Vehicle Market, the UC Davis research team points out that what they tactfully call “a sub-par purchase experience” could slow the pace of EV adoption, making it harder for states to achieve their ZEV targets and other regulatory objectives.
“Policies and incentive programs do not currently account for the key role dealers play in new vehicle transactions,” wrote Eric Cahill and his co-authors. “There is also little available information that describes the extent to which new car dealers are embracing PEVs or that examine the quality of the purchase experience witnessed by PEV buyers.”
The researchers conducted 43 interviews with six automakers and 20 dealers in California, and analyzed J.D. Power’s 2013 Sales Satisfaction Index data. They also examined results from the PEV Demographic and Diffusion questionnaire, which is distributed to applicants for California’s PEV purchase rebate.
“We found that on average, plug-in vehicle buyers rated dealers much lower in sales satisfaction than conventional vehicle buyers. In contrast, buyers ranked Tesla much more favorably. The magnitude of these disparities is extraordinary by industry standards and indicate the problem is likely systemic. Tesla’s industry-high marks suggest new retail approaches could lift satisfaction scores, engendering positive word of mouth that could hasten consumer adoption.”
Source: Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, Working Paper UCD-ITS-WP-14-04
The study found that PEVs involve a longer sales process than conventional vehicles. Dealers described early adopter PEV customers as particularly discriminating, requiring more time from sales staff. From a salesperson’s perspective, this detracts from time spent closing another potentially more lucrative transaction.
To be fair, the study noted that when plug-ins represent a small portion of dealer sales, it’s hard for salespeople to learn and remember all the ins and outs of electric vehicles. Dealers emphasized that competence comes from regular exposure and repetition. High employee turnover in the new car business – 50% or more annually for some dealerships – further undercuts learning and retention.