Buying Used Cars: Digitization is Catching on

Buyers and potential buyers increasingly use online tools in their research. This was the result of a survey by DEKRA and Ipsos in Germany, China, the USA and France.

DEKRA was one of the first international expert organisations to enter the vehicle testing business in China. Photo: DEKRA

After many months of Corona-induced stagnation, the used car market is now experiencing a flurry of activity. The days are over when even good used cars ended up waiting for a buyer until they started to rust. The reasons for this boom are obvious. Anyone who needs a vehicle quickly would rather buy a used car than wait months for a new one. The causes of the current supply bottlenecks are well known: Missing components, especially semiconductors, are putting a strain on production. And there’s no end to the dilemma in sight.

Anyone who wants to participate in this boom should know what used car buyers and potential buyers want and what makes them tick. A current online study by expert organization DEKRA and market research institute Ipsos provides important insights. A total of 1,000 people were surveyed in May and June 2021 in Germany – half of them have bought a used car within the last two years, the other half intend to do so in the foreseeable future. DEKRA and Ipsos last surveyed this group in 2017 in Germany.

Buying used cars is becoming more digital

The fact is, buying a used car is becoming increasingly digital. Four out of five used car buyers and prospective buyers now rely on internet sources for information. Online vehicle exchanges such as or are particularly popular: Two out of three respondents said they use them. The exchanges are rated as the most important source of information by almost every second respondent. Car dealer websites are also popular – four out of ten respondents obtain information there, and three out of ten do so from the websites of vehicle manufacturers.

“These figures show that the successful sale of used cars is hardly conceivable today without being present on the most widely used vehicle exchanges,” comments Guido Kutschera, Chairman of the Management Board of DEKRA Automobil GmbH. However, a dealer’s own website is also an important channel with a lot of potential.

With the right strategy, used car dealers and car dealerships still have a good chance of participating in the boom. “Anyone who consistently uses the most important online vehicle exchanges for their own vehicle offers, while at the same time focusing on optimizing their website, has a good chance of being successful as a relevant player in the used car business,” says Kutschera.

A used vehicle with a DEKRA seal for used vehicles is technically and visually in defect-free condition. Photo: DEKRA

Many prospective buyers expect digital services when buying a used car. One in three respondents, for example, would like to be able to make an appointment via the dealer’s website. In general, four out of ten respondents expect a quick response within a maximum of two hours to inquiries sent by e-mail or via the dealer’s website. A look at the corresponding figures from the 2017 study shows that the demands of used car buyers are increasing significantly. Four years ago, only 14 percent expected feedback within two hours. Nowadays, six percent of respondents want quasi-real-time communication by expecting a response within half an hour.

Digital services such as online price calculators are also in demand: One in three respondents would like one of those. Eight out of ten appreciate a wide range of sorting functions, for example by vehicle age, price, engine, or color. Ease of use and choice are also high on the list of priorities, as are direct vehicle comparisons. Leasing and financing offers, on the other hand, are less in demand.

Customers expect top service

Used car buyers use the online offers of dealers and vehicle exchanges. Photo: Shutterstock/vectorfusionart

Once they’ve found the right model, used car buyers generally appreciate an uncomplicated purchasing process. For many customers, this also includes the used car warranty and liability for material defects. Interestingly enough, for the vast majority of buyers and potential buyers, the ambiance at the dealership plays no role at all when buying a vehicle.

YouTube is trending

The DEKRA/Ipsos survey also highlighted the growing importance of moving images. YouTube videos are particularly popular, such as used car buying tips or tests. Compared to the 2017 study, the number of people who use such videos as a source of information tripled. “Although this is still happening at a relatively low level, the growth rate should provide car dealers with food for thought for the future,” says Kutschera.

Increase in vehicle purchase portals

When used cars become scarce, it’s also interesting to know how private individuals part with their end-of-life vehicles. According to the latest DEKRA/Ipsos study, awareness and use of vehicle purchasing portals on the internet has risen noticeably since the last survey. One in four respondents stated that they had used a purchasing portal such as or to sell a car.

Four years ago, it wasn’t even one in five. “Customers expect to be able to get rid of their existing vehicle in an uncomplicated way and at a good price,” says Kutschera, commenting on this trend. He also sees a market for the classic used car trade: “A structured purchasing process can also be a success factor, for example via appropriate cooperation.”

How Chinese, French, and US-Americans think

For the online study, DEKRA and Ipsos also surveyed around 1,000 people each in China, the USA, and France. As was the case for the study of the German market, half the respondents had bought a used car within the last 24 months, and the other half were considering doing so. When comparing the national surveys’ results, it becomes clear that the used car market’s digitization is most advanced in China, where 90 percent of people prefer digital contact with the dealer. Only one in ten respondents still prefers personal contact. In the USA, 71 percent value digital contact and 27 percent personal contact. In France, the ratio is 61 to 32 percent.

Almost every Chinese does research before buying online

In all three countries, respondents research online before buying a used car. In China, practically everyone does so (97 percent). In the USA it’s 78 percent of respondents, and in France it’s 75 percent. Of the used car buyers and prospective buyers who still obtain information offline, half of those surveyed in France use the dealer as a point of contact. In the USA it’s 58 percent. In China on the other hand – as stated by three out of four people – conversations with friends, colleagues, or relatives play an especially large role.

Something all three countries have in common is the expectation of a quick response to online inquiries. Eight out of ten Chinese respondents expect a response within two hours at the latest. In the USA, six out of ten expect this, and in France the rate is 47 percent. By contrast, a third of respondents in China consider half an hour as a reasonable response time. In the USA it’s 14 percent and in France eight percent.

When it comes to the criteria ultimately used to make a purchase, 47 percent of the respondents in China, 43 percent in the USA, and 41 percent in France most frequently mention the purchase price as the deciding factor. Not so the Germans: At 30 percent, price comes in second after an uncomplicated purchasing process as most important buying factor.

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