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ROCHESTER, Mich. — When looking at the factors that ultimately lead consumers to buy a vehicle, the biggest positive influence on a car buyer's decision is the dealership visit, according to a recent study from Foresight Research.

In fact, more than half of vehicle purchasers indicated that their experience at the dealership was "highly influential in the purchase process." No other factor — including the Internet — had a greater impact on car buyers' decisions, officials noted.

"At a time when the dealership network is under increased pressure across the industry, this data clearly supports that no single aspect of the automotive sales and marketing spectrum is more influential than what happens inside the dealership," suggested Steve Bruyn, president of Foresight Research, which has gathered data for its "2010: Automotive Marketing Return on Investment" over the last five years.

The study includes an in-depth look at how auto dealerships impact both the automaker's brand and consumer purchase decisions.

Foresight said it found "compelling results," and shared some of those findings this week. 

Interestingly enough, the visit to the store was influential in prompting some buyers to switch brands. Foresight indicates that more than a fifth (22 percent) of conquest buyers said they got their "first favorable opinion" of the brand they switched to by visiting the dealership.

In other words, dealers have a strong chance to positively impact a shopper's opinion of a brand from the outset.

"Many buyers visit the dealer early in the shopping process, not just at the end of the process, so automotive marketers have a big opportunity to win new customers and build brand equity by offering attractive dealership environments," Bruyn pointed out.

For instance, about two-thirds (67 percent) of buyers cited an "inviting, modern and well-organized showroom" as being pivotal in their decision, Foresight shared.

Other important influences were the dealership having brochures, financing options, accessorized vehicles and signage.

Delving into some specifics about the role of dealership personnel, 90 percent of respondents who indicated that the dealership experience had a strongly positive effect on them claimed that they encountered a salesperson who acted professionally.

Meanwhile, 84 percent reported doing business with a knowledgeable salesperson and almost two-thirds (66 percent) found their salesperson to be trustworthy.

Continuing on, Foresight highlighted two brands, in particular, benefited from strong first impressions at the dealership more than other brands did: Mercury and Lincoln.

Specifically, 42 percent of shoppers who bought a Lincoln said they got their first positive impression of the brand from the dealership visit, while 38 percent of Mercury buyers said the same.

Officials noted these proportions are almost twice as high as what other brands average.

"Customers are won at the showroom and creating positive experiences is the job of every automotive marketer and dealer," Bruyn stated.

"Our data offers a clear snapshot of how OEMs and dealers currently perform and can provide insight into developing a blueprint for improving purchase influence," he continued. "The study also contains media and Internet habits that can be used to communicate with new car and truck buyers."