LONDON: The internet is playing an increasingly important role in shaping how UK consumers make purchases in the auto category, according to a new study.

Specific Media, the digital media company and owner of MySpace, surveyed 1,009 consumers, and revealed 74% believed the web was an "important" place to research which car to buy.

A further 66% agreed this medium provided greater "independence" when making choices in this sector, and 48% thought it offered access to a broad range of opinions.

Moreover, 38% of the panel described researching vehicles on the web as "interesting" and 32% viewed it as being "enjoyable".

However, while 33% of contributors stated the internet made them "less dependent" on visiting a dealer and 36% felt more in control thanks to this channel, purchase habits have not seen a major shift.

As such, 56% of drivers bought cars from main dealers, 20% turned to other dealers or garages, whereas websites - including auction and sales sites - posted a share of just 3% on this measure.

Chris Worrell, European research manager at Specific Media, argued that dealerships may not yet have faced pressure in terms of sales, but must adapt their approach to meet the needs of empowered buyers.

"The automotive consumer of today is well informed and comes to the forecourt armed with information," he said. "Dealers and manufacturers need to acknowledge this and look to add value in other areas of their service such as post-sale support."

Elsewhere, the study assessed the online search trends related to a high-end auto manufacturer, and found 28% of web users searched for this brand, which recorded 109,000 sales overall.

By contrast, 53% sought to track down details concerning a mid-market carmaker, helping secure 280,000 sales, and Worrell thus suggested there was a clear gap between the cars people searched for, and those they bought.

"Manufacturers should look to advertise more effectively online by targeting people who are most likely to buy their cars," he said. "This may sometimes challenge received wisdom about target audiences."

Data sourced from Specific Media; additional content by Warc staff