Has Online Shopping for Auto Insurance Peaked?

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by Andrew G. Simpson

Shopping over the internet for auto insurance is down for the second year in a row, says a survey by a company that tracks the behavior of consumers with credit history.

The latest TransUnion Auto Insurance Shopping Index reports that shopping rates for auto insurance were down about 3 percent in the 12 months ending Feb 2014 relative to a year earlier.  While 15.0 percent of the credit-active population shopped for new auto insurance policies in the 12 months ending Feb 2014, this was down from 15.4 percent for the 12 months ending Feb 2013, according to TransUnion.

“We are finding that despite billions of dollars being spent on advertising each year, the percentage of consumers shopping for auto insurance has been dropping for approximately the last two years,” said Mark McElroy, executive vice president of TransUnion’s insurance business unit. “This places additional pressure on insurance carriers as their pool of potential customers declines.”

Similarly, declines for auto insurance shopping rates were observed for the full years of 2012 to 2013. While 15.2 percent of the credit-active population shopped for new auto insurance policies in 2013, this was down from 15.7 percent for 2012.

Percent of Credit Population Shopping for Auto Insurance

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
14.9% 16.0% 16.1% 15.7% 15.2%

TransUnion’s latest index also found that auto insurance shopping rates peak in March with another similar rise in August.  Auto shopping is traditionally lowest in November and December.

“It’s interesting to see such high incidences of auto shopping in March, though some of this could be attributed to people making new car purchases with work or tax return cash inflows received at the beginning of the year. It’s also a possibility that there is pent up demand for auto sales in March as weather begins to improve in much of the nation,” said McElroy.  “We also observed more auto insurance shopping in August, which may be a result of students looking to purchase new vehicles prior to going back to school.”

The same TransUnion research also indicates that customers with lower credit-based insurance scores shop most frequently while consumers with the highest insurance scores are less likely than the general population to shop for new auto insurance. Among other characteristics, the data show that younger people tend to shop for auto insurance more frequently, and auto insurance shopping peaks at age 25 for both men and women.

The index was released just as two major retailers — Overstock.com and Walmart—  were launching online sales of insurance on their websites.

Independent agency carriers also recently upped their investment in online shopping. Project CAP, which manages the TrustedChoice.com consumer-agent portal, raised $10 million last month from Travelers and Motorists Mutual, bringing its total funding since 2011 to more than $50 million.

Last September, Texas-based insurance-professional-turned-internet entrepreneur Adam Lyons launched TheZebra.com, a platform that lets consumers shop anonymously for real-time competitive rates on auto insurance from more than 200 carriers.

TheZebra’s Lyons does not believe the peak has been reached. He says there are contradicting industry reports that suggest increases and decreases in online insurance shopping but the percentage variance is very minor. More important, he says, is that shopping online is getting easier and younger people are likely to continue to shop online.

“Millennials and Generation Z have grown up expecting to be able to do all of their shopping via online comparison,” he said. “Electronics, flights, mortgages and most financial products can be compared and purchased online. For car insurance, that online process was extremely painful. But as it gets easier, more consumers will shop and purchase their insurance online.”

Lyons said online shopping is even more popular and growing in the United Kingdom and some other countries than it is in the U.S.

The downturn in online shopping could reflect an overall decline in insurance shopping. Another study, one by J.D. Power and Associates in 2012, found that the auto insurance shopping rate — not just online shopping — had reached the lowest point in the past five years, with only 25 percent of insurance customers indicating they shopped for a new insurer in the past 12 months, down eight percentage points from 2011.

While only one-fourth of auto insurance customers shopped for a new policy, 43 percent of those shoppers switched carriers, J.D. Power reported. The same firm also reported that one in five new buyers purchased auto insurance online.

Last month, J.D. Power released a study that said online shoppers who switch auto insurance carriers often regret doing so because they end up paying more with their new insurer.

TransUnion says its Auto Insurance Shopping Index is giving insurance carriers new information on how knowledge of shopping behavior can help with marketing acquisition, cross/up selling and underwriting for existing customers; how knowledge of specific consumer’s long run shopping patterns can help segment consumers; and about price optimization in which  knowledge of consumer shopping patterns helps in understanding consumer price sensitivity.

The TransUnion Auto Insurance Shopping Index is derived from TransUnion’s database of credit data, which the company says includes information on more than 430 million auto insurance shopping transactions from 2009 to Feb 2014. The Index focuses on the credit population.  The index excludes data from California and Massachusetts, which prohibit the use of credit-based insurance scoring information in auto insurance rating or underwriting.


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