Among Millennials, 53% of Car Buyers Are Female

Aug. 20, 2014 6:52 p.m. ET

Cathy Anderson, right, owner of Woody Anderson Ford, a Huntsville, Ala., dealership, discusses a car with
Connie Hicklen. Shawn Poynter for the Wall Street Journal

On a recent hot summer night outside Detroit, a 62-year-old woman sat in a chair watching the Telegraph Cruise, a classic-car parade on Telegraph Avenue in Taylor, Mich., when a stranger approached and began asking questions.

What kind of car did she drive? Why had she chosen that automobile? What did this choice say about her identity?

The stranger, it turned out, was Chris Lezotte, a Ph.D candidate at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, who was doing ethnographic research for her dissertation on the relationship women have with cars.

Ms. Lezotte is one of a small army of researchers trying to get inside the heads of women who need transportation—"to uncover the various meanings women ascribe to cars in a variety of contexts," as she puts it. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute put out a study in 2012 showing that the number of women drivers in the U.S. had surpassed that of men, 105.7 million to 104.3 million, as of 2010.

Ever since, researchers have been wondering why the car-shopping and buying experience is still such a man's game. The National Automobile Dealers Association says last year some 91% of car salesmen at franchised dealerships were men.

Women accounted for 39% of car purchases in 2013, up from 37% four years earlier, according to J.D. Power. That may not seem like a big change, until you consider that Americans bought almost 15.6 million cars last year. A 2% shift represents more than 300,000 vehicles.

When a man buys a car, there is often a woman behind the decision, according to the buzz in auto circles. Globally, women are "making the final decision on more than 60% of new car purchases," said Carlos Ghosn, president and chief executive of Nissan Motor Co, in a speech in July.

Melody Lee, director of brand and reputation strategy for General Motors Co.'s Cadillac division, says she believes women wield influence in anywhere from 85% to 95% of car purchases. "That's what we're seeing in our showrooms and that's what our dealers are telling us," she said.

Here's another statistic, culled from her research: "If 74% of women feel that they are misunderstood [by car marketers] but they're influencing up to 95% of our car purchases—that's a huge missed opportunity there," she says.

Chris Lezotte, a Ph. D candidate studying women's relationships
with their cars, in her 1949 Ford Coupe. Alan Kalter

Researchers say demographic shifts offer more reasons for auto makers to refine their sales pitch to women. Women earn more, marry later and divorce more often than they used to. And both women (and men) can be formidable customers, arriving at the dealership armed with research found online, so they aren't at the mercy of a salesman.

At the same time, social media give women "a voice that can impact brands like no other time in history," says Jody DeVere, chief executive of AskPatty, a women's automotive-advisory website.

AskPatty.com is a kind of automotive matchmaking website for women. Its panel of female experts, from automotive executives to magazine editors to race-car drivers, give women advice on buying, maintaining and insuring cars. At the same time, it sells services to automotive companies who want to attract more women customers.

By completing Web-training modules, retailers can be certified by AskPatty.com as "Female Friendly." AskPatty also offers webinars on how to reach women buyers who are Hispanic or baby boomers.

A newer company with some similar aims is Women-drivers.com, which serves as a forum for women to discuss experiences at specific car dealerships. It also offers support for dealers with feedback from women, content for social media and its own market research. Even before Chief Executive Anne Fleming founded the company in 2013, she had begun compiling her own research on car buying, by sending a questionnaire to some 500 women. The company's continuing research has found that women visit an average of 1.9 dealerships before buying. And 47.5% of women who bought a new car went to the dealership by themselves.

Experts have found women are more likely to rely on online customer reviews and friends' opinions when shopping, while men are more likely to turn to expert reviews.

Ford Motor Co. has created a program called "Live.Drive.Love," which offers women 24-hour test drives. Chantel Lenard, director of U.S. marketing for Ford and Lincoln, said, "It's an opportunity [for women] to experience the product on their own time, in their own environments, so they can show it to friends."

What's down the road? Consider this statistic, Ms. Lenard says. Among millennials—the young adults all industries will soon be fighting for, if they aren't already—53% of car buyers are female. A 2013 Autotrader.com study also projects U.S. millennials will be the wealthiest generation ever.

"We're seeing a shift where females are becoming the majority," Ms. Lenard said. "It's an important market and we want to make sure we're delivering on their needs."

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Tags: brands, buyers, by, car, cars, dealers, dealerships, journal, rated, reviews, More…street, the, wall, with, women, working

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Comment by steven chessin on August 22, 2014 at 2:25pm

 We should be so far past all discrimination that proving it should be as strange as seeing old motels in Miami with signs that say they have air-conditioning and color TV. 

 

Comment by Sharon Hill on August 22, 2014 at 10:40am

Keith, I don't think it's important to proactively search, as in posting a women, come work for me job listing, though it's probably important to subtly let it be known that they're welcome - something as simple as photos of all reps on your site and blog (assuming you have at least one woman?) or maybe a guest blog on an online community or blog that has a hefty female audience. The blog post wouldn't be about hiring women, it would be more subtle - maybe about what you see happening in the Connected Car movement, and if you have no females, bring in the view of a female industry /OEM leader perhaps. What are your interests outside of the dealership arena?

If for instance, you are a Little League umpire in your off time, you might pitch an article to a female-focused blog or online magazine about the introduction of young girls to the game and how that happened and what it means. And of course, you slip in something about "good to see this, as these girls might grow up welcomed in non-traditional fields. Perhaps they'll end up in my sales or service dept." And then of course you socially share that blog post.

 Think outside the box to tell women that you welcome them and then let them come to you. I think a lot of women don't apply for these jobs in general because they don't expect acceptance. And that's not just about being allowed to apply and being hired. It's about how they perceive their acceptance, or lack thereof, by the other team members.

I think getting the "come work here" message out there is not so much about putting their profile picture and bio in a box on the site along with the others. It's about showing them as part of the team - fun pictures of everyone playing together in the annual fundraiser volleyball tournament, and so forth. Or just a group shot of everyone with the balloons in the background the day you kicked off your annual sale. Show them all having fun together, liking each other, male and female. If you don't have a female sales rep yet, bring in the clerks, the receptionist, whomever is female, put the same logo'd shirts on all, don't id them, don't say their roles, and get that fun group shot up on your site, your Facebook page, your blog.

BUT  I also don't believe women go to dealerships looking for female sales people. In fact, I'd be annoyed as hell if someone steered a female rep in my direction because I was female. I do, however, like to see that there are women there, and not just one token.

Where you might really have less difficulty finding someone is for your Internet sales staff. Plenty of women come up the inside sales / call center route. Find a female Internet sales manager. If you already have that role filled, hire an assistant Internet sales manager, or an inside sale supervisor that reports to the Internet sales manager. Then you might let her cross-train, shadow the showroom sales team for awhile - good to do anyway. And then if she wants, let her try her hand at selling face to face. And she'll surely tell her friends. 

And have you asked if your female clerks, receptionists, etc if they've ever considered selling cars? going to auto repair school? Why not sit them down and say, "look, here's my problem. I want more women in here, but first and foremost I want you all to feel that you have an opportunity to advance if you want it. So, would you like to try? And if not, what do I do to get more women in here? You could even put in place an employee referral program that bonuses female hires more (not sure if that's legal - do check.)

I just wrote an article about employee referrals and there are two excellent vendors helping employers put these into place, both with gamification tools as well, that can make the whole thing fun as well as efficient. They're Zalp and Zao. While it's a subscriber-only article, if you'll message me here privately with your email address I'll send you a copy with the proviso that you won't share publicly. 

Comment by Anne Fleming on August 22, 2014 at 10:16am

Keith -- May I suggest talking to Sally Whitesell - she is a dE member. Or, please reach me at anne@women-drivers.com and am happy to send you her information. Another company comes to mind. The key is not having women on your floor, but having great, qualified women! my best, anne

Comment by Keith DeBoer on August 22, 2014 at 10:07am

I have been actively searching for years to add women to the sales force at our dealership.  However, I have had little success in having women apply for a sales position.  Believe me, I understand the importance women have in the buying decisions, and I want to have women here to represent our products in turn.  Does anyone have any suggestions on how to recruit women more effectively?

Comment by Anne Fleming on August 22, 2014 at 9:25am

Steve -- without the context of a conversation, I will keep this simple. The "seal" is provided to dealerships based upon the reviews and ratings of other women who have shopped, purchased or had their car serviced at that dealership. Dealers use this "Certified seal" in their various advertising. Women -- who rely on car dealer reviews 50% more than men and trust reviews written by other women-- go to that dealership walking in already expecting to have a great experience because they have seen all the very positive reviews posted by other women. And, guess, what? They do have a great experience - and reward that store by becoming a new client.  

Customers, in this case, women customers - can buy a car anywhere and pay within a couple of hundred dollars for a car here versus the dealership across town.Women are now traveling an average of 35 miles to a vehicle. This model is one for dealerships to distinguish themselves to this powerful buying group. (Who incidentally, for decades, has never really been marketed to). Thanks for asking... all good questions and discussion. 

Comment by steven chessin on August 21, 2014 at 10:30pm

Anne - I don't get it.

What are the award winners doing that would encourage women to shop there other than having that seal of approval on their site based upon I have no idea what. Just having a team that is "respectful" is standard operating procedure. Whether it is gender, ethnic or any criteria respect-is-respect. Anyone that doesn't have it doesn't belong here anyway. --- We have a really well-qualified woman salesPERSON that used to be a GM so I I was researching "women friendly" --- and I'm just not seeing how to apply this to the benefit of the store or the customers. What would you do to harness the power we now have we did not have before ?

Comment by steven chessin on August 21, 2014 at 9:46pm

 A lioness can still be called a lion except if she doesn't like that.  

Comment by Anne Fleming on August 21, 2014 at 8:35pm

Steve -- I am not sure if you are asking Sharon that question, but I am going to jump in. Women have been buying cars from men from decades. It is not necessary to assign female sales women to work with women shoppers exclusively. Having said that, as a general practice, hiring more qualified sales advisors that are women simply makes sense for your business. Women buy cars from their sales advisor because they are treated respectfully first and they trust their sales advisor secondly; the gender of the sales advisor is not critical to this process. 

Comment by Sharon Hill on August 21, 2014 at 6:53pm

"91% of car salesmen at franchised dealerships were men." REALLY?? Actually 100% of sales MEN would be men. I see this all the time - people talking about the sales staff by calling them sales MEN. It's offensive.  I really find it hard to believe that there is some sort of big car-buying behavior or interest difference  based on gender. Where the big difference is in the heads of some of the dealer staff, which results in women buyers getting their backs up.  I was reading an article the other day about how a mapping system was sexist because so many contributors were male which led to more "guy' things on the map, like bars and cars, and fewer "woman" things like child care. The results weren't sexist - the sexism there was in the eye of the author who thought that all it would take is having women contribute and voila there would be child care centers and nail salons galore. That's so not true. I'd much rather know about how to fix my car - the hell with my nails. My point is that no one needs to be doing anything different or using any different sales technique when working with most female customers. What they need to do is assume we're their equals, and we're just another customer. Don't talk down to us, don't assume there's some man waiting int he wings to make that final decision, don't assume we're not smart because we don't understand everything under the hood (plenty of guys don't either) and don't touch us except to shake hands. We don't need help getting through the door, and we don't need a hand on our shoulder. We just need a good deal. 

Comment by steven chessin on August 21, 2014 at 5:28pm

How does a dealership use these stats and trends at the sales floor level face-to-face?  

Do you suggest assigning female sales-women to work with single female shoppers ? Dealerships are generally open-floor or round-robin so it is a roll-of-the-dice. Or is this info just for manufacturer advertising ?  Of course I understand that it is important to recognize market trends but what does a dealer do about it ? 

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