When Erik Nelson started searching for a car last fall, he knew he wanted a Subaru and a great relationship with his dealership.
He didn’t know that he’d have to travel across the country to get it.
Nelson purchased a 2017 Outback from Quantrell Subaru in Lexington, Ky., in September, nearly 1,400 miles from his home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. His reasoning for the trip? A car with great mileage for a great price that just couldn’t be found closer to home.
“The Subaru dealership in town was not the best experience,” Nelson said. “It was difficult to find something. I went to Carvana to see if I could get something delivered, and nothing was really clicking until I talked to the dealership in Lexington.”
After a short test drive at the dealership and visiting friends in Kentucky, the car was his.
“We were able to see friends and get a car, and it was just a good overall situation,” Nelson said.
Experiences such as Nelson’s are becoming more and more common, according to recent data.
A March survey of 2,690 buyers across the country commissioned by Quantrell Subaru found the average person willing to travel up to 469 miles to purchase a used vehicle, with consumers from Alaska saying they were willing to go up to 722 miles — the longest distance in the survey.
Brentley Jones, general manager of Quantrell Subaru, told Automotive News that the inventory shortage driving up the cost of used vehicles is pushing consumers to drive farther distances — particularly if they’re seeking a specific car they can’t find in their local market.
“Most of it is just availability and the type of car you have,” Jones said. Where shoppers once may have searched up to 250 miles away to find a specific vehicle, “I think now they probably would search the whole country more or less.”
Quantrell Subaru has adapted to the increase in long-distance travelers in part by offering to pick them up from the airport, he said.
Separately, dealership technology company Cars.com found in a June 2021 survey that nearly 10 percent of car buyers were traveling out of state and 13 percent went 250-plus miles to obtain their desired vehicle. In a different survey conducted last month, Cars.com found that 53 percent of shoppers were willing to travel more than 50 miles, with two of every three respondents saying they were willing to cross state lines.
Jennifer Newman, editor-in-chief of Cars.com, attributed the trend to external factors such as the microchip shortage and the war in Ukraine constraining production and resulting in a shortage of new vehicles and more stress on the used-car market.
“We’re telling people that you really have to be flexible and it’s all about being nimble right now,” Newman said.
Jones said he’s seen firsthand that customers are much less particular about the cars they’re purchasing. They’re more willing to switch from a desired paint color or accept flaws such as scratches, even when traveling long distances, he said.
Cars.com data from this year shows customers have traveled the farthest for Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota vehicles, Newman said. She suggested that consumers look to nearby metro areas when seeking desired vehicles.
“In our findings last year, we were seeing the most inventory in New York, L.A., Chicago, Philly and Dallas-Fort Worth,” Newman said. “That’s great guidance even today. If you are out in a smaller city, look to that bigger city that’s close to you. You’re going to have more dealerships and possibly more supply.”
The long-distance shopping trend strengthened as prices of used vehicles increased 37 percent from December 2020 to December 2021. That was the second-largest percentage price increase among 80,000-plus items that make up the Consumer Price Index, following only gasoline. It was also the highest 12-month change in the price of used vehicles in the 100-plus year history of the index.
And even though gas prices have also surged, Newman said she doesn’t anticipate that increase to limit the distance consumers are willing to travel to buy a preferred vehicle. After all, 82 percent of Americans told Cars.com they were still planning to travel for Memorial Day this year.
“When it comes to high gas prices … [on] Memorial Day people were still traveling. The high gas prices didn’t stop them,” she said. “People that are desperate to get a vehicle, they may not necessarily think of that right away.”
Not all retailers are getting more long-distance shoppers.
Ted Sawicki, owner of Smiling Ted’s Quality Used Cars in Buffalo, N.Y., told Automotive News that he’s seen a decrease in such travelers as of late. The newer lower-mileage used vehicles in stock at Smiling Ted’s became less popular among his clientele as prices increased, he said.
“People are settling, and they’re going older or cheaper or just finding something to bide the time until things change,” Sawicki said. “I’ve heard people who are just trying to buy something old and cheap to get by for a year or so until this settles down.”
At Quantrell Subaru, Jones said he’s finding that customers have increasingly researched their desired vehicle and know exactly what they want. Because of that, shoppers are doing less tire-kicking and aren’t as influenced as they once were by experiences at the dealership such as test drives, he said.
“Those days of looking for a used car in person are kind of over,” Jones said. Consumers “kind of know, ‘We found this car we like for our family, or for whoever, and we probably need to make a decision on this pretty quick because it’s probably not going to be there in a week.’ ”