imho \im-hö\ abbr In My Humble Opinion

Doesn't Anyone Want $25,000?


Try buying a vehicle through the Internet. Emphasis is on the "try."

(This article was originally written in 2001. You'd think that things would have changed, but three years later I tried again and got more of the same, just from different Web sites and dealers. Bottom line: do your shopping research on the Web, but do your actually shopping at real dealers.)

My current vehicle was about to come off lease, so I began shopping for a new one. Being the Internet-savvy consumer I am (Quicken tells me I spent almost $10,000 on items ordered from the Internet in the last two years), I spent some time doing research on vehicles that met my meager requirements. I also determined that there's no way my current 4x4 is worth the residual the lease company figured, so I've decided to leave the bank the keys and move on, thank you.

So far, so good. For my new vehicle I assembled four good-looking candidates, and for each of those I obtained invoice and dealer costs for every option, a full list of colors and interiors, performance specifications, expected maintenance and insurance costs, and several informed reviews from reputable sources. Information is power, right?

In early February I started trying to convert that power into reality by buying one of those vehicles via the Internet (I wansn't overly particular, any of the four would suit my needs just fine). First, I tried Carpoint, MSN's buying service. Carpoint allows you to configure a vehicle, and then type in a ZIP Code to locate a dealer who'll sell it to you. Sounds simple enough. Of course, not a single nearby dealer participates in Carpoint's program, so all the dealers that were located for me tended to be around Philadelphia, about 45 miles away. The results:

Unfortunately, when Dealer #3 contacted me, they didn't know any of the specifics about the configuration I had painstakingly entered into Carpoint's Web site. ("They just send us the contact info and the make, usually," I was told. Of course, this was an auto salesman I was talking to, so whether or not that's a true statement is unknown.) At that point, the whole thing became a game with me. I could have been proactive and called Dealers #1 and #2 back, but I was curious. Just how interested in selling cars are these people?

Next, I tried the manufacturers. Two of the companies have sites that allow you to "configure" a vehicle and submit that request to local dealers. Once again I spent the time to enter all the goodies I wanted on my new wheels. Off went the requests. Dealer #5 called the next day, once again stating that they didn't know the particulars on the vehicle I wanted. So I told them, and once again got the "I've got to go check inventory" line. They'd get right back to me. Yeah, right [they didn't].

Maker #2's site was the first that located a dealer anywhere near me that was supposedly willing to sell me a vehicle. Indeed, the dealer is only a short walk from where I live. (Yes, that's the real irony here. I live about a half-mile from Auto Row, where I could find virtually any brand of vehicle I want. But I'm tech to the core, and I wanted to see just how far the old-world economy has come. I've spent hours sitting down dickering with auto sales people in my lifetime, I'd really like to think that future generations might have it a bit better.) This time, I went further, applying for credit online, as well. I figured, what the heck, a dealer sees my preapproved credit and my vehicle request together, they'll just have to spend a little more effort trying to close the deal.

Of course, my confidence dropped immediately when I clicked the button to finalize my vehicle request and was taken to a page that gave me a copy of what was being sent to the dealer. Right there at the top of the page was a HTML Heading2 item: "Emails Not Sent." Yet there in the body text was not only all the particulars (including the info those other two dealers claimed they weren't getting), but the email addresses of two local dealers and the maker's monitoring address (as a visible BCC, believe it or not!). Did the email go to the dealer? I don't know, other than that obscure message, every other indication was positive. Of course, I never heard from either dealer, so perhaps the header was correct, in which case Maker #2 totally wasted my time (gee, should I send this Imho URL to the BCC?). For what it's worth, my credit application was approved in a few minutes, though I had to go to a special Web site to find that out (they had my email address, why not email me with the good news?).

Next on my list was to try the Web sites of local dealers. I grabbed the classified section of my morning paper and started typing URLs into my browser. Some of the vehicles I'd feel comfortable purchasing are popular, after all, so maybe nobody has any in stock. Of the 12 sites I checked, 10 had current inventory search functions. Hmm, all but one of the dealers seemed to have the models I was looking for. But a new problem surfaced: it appears that most of the dealers use one of two regional car inventory systems, and those systems don't identify option levels on the Web (not even major package items, and in a couple of cases, not even model levels), just model and suggested retail price (see below for an example). That makes the search function relatively useless, of course, as it doesn't tell me enough information to learn if any of the vehicles are equipped anything like what I want. Jeez, on some I can't even see what color the car is! Five of the sites thoughtfully added the standard feature list, three of those showed pictures of the wrong vehicle (one did note that the picture might not reflect the model I was searching for, though).

[Two days pass]

Dealer #5 sent email to me this morning. This was one of the dealers whose Web site I visited, and who I left a message for while searching their vehicle database. The salesman even copied the message he received from the Web site, which was a bit illuminating (I've hidden the dealer and make name):

> This email was sent from your 'Dealer #5' website.
> The URL of the page used to send this email is
> 'http://www.dealer#5/f_new_inventory-full.cgi'.
> DATE: Sat Jan 13 07:24:43 PST 2001
> Dealership: #5
> The following customer is requesting more information on a vehicle listed on your website: ======================================================================
> Thom Hogan
> Home Phone: xxx-xxx-xxxx
> Day Phone:
> Fax: >
> Best Time To Call: Evening
> ====================================================================== > >
> Customer was inquiring about the following vehicle:
> ======================================================================
> 2001 Maker #2 Model>
> VIN: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
> Stock: M00523 >
> Price: xxxxxx
> Miles:
> Exterior Color: Platinum Metallic
> Interior Color:

The information about the vehicle listed in the email was the full set of information I could see on the Web site, by the way. It doesn't indicate whether the vehicle is 4-wheel drive, or not, a major issue for me. The day after I received his email, someone from the dealership called. The conversation was short. According to the car salesman (credibility level=low) Maker #2 isn't making any models with ABS brakes until June (despite this being clearly an option on their Factory Order site, Carpoint's site, and virtually every other site I've seen--is this more salesman talk, or is it true?). Moreover, the moonroof I want (hey, they're useful for photographers!) is in short supply--he's only seen one in six months. At least this last piece of information corresponds with the "limited availability" tag on the maker's site. Curiously, Dealer #5 made no attempt to try to switch me to one of the vehicles they had in stock (it most likely wouldn't have worked, maybe he knew from the sound of my voice). After all, every dealer in the world can get an aftermarket moonroof installed in a vehicle, many using the exact same parts as the manufacturer uses.

Okay, so one dealer is moving to a slightly different drummer, what happened to the rest? Did all their phone systems suddenly go dead?

Next on my grand tour was CarsDirect. Let me iterate all the problems I encountered there:

Problem #1. Vehicle #1 was available, but nowhere could I find the V6 engine option I know was offered. Curiously, the towing package, which requires the V6, was listed, but attempts to click on it were met with the "not available with the engine you selected" dead end. Huh?

Problem #2: Vehicle #2 was listed as "Factory Order" only. Since this was the same vehicle I had just talked to a dealer about, I was amused to note that ABS and moonroofs were listed as available options. The price the site quoted was greater than manufacturer's suggested retail price for a factory order. What's with that? Even though this is a popular vehicle, I bet I could find a local dealer to do a factory order at list.

Problem #4: Vehicle #3 was available as I wanted it, but it was my last choice, which brought me to: Vehicle #4 was available but listed as "Limited Availability." The price was decent (midway between invoice and MSRP), especially since this was a popular model that's in short supply in the Northeast. I decided to take the plunge. I configured the vehicle the way I wanted it, and saved it using the "Save This Vehicle" link. So far so good, though I noted that they tried to sell me an extended warranty (are Internet dealers exactly the same as your local dealer? That's a depressing thought.).

Problem #5: Next, I clicked on the "Order Now" link. The site took me back to the configure loop, despite the fact that the Order Now link was on my completed configuration page! Sigh. Okay, I was darn sure of what I wanted by now, having entered it a zillion times. Once again I was asked if I want that extended warranty. No thanks.

Problem #6: Okay, we've made it through the configuration loop, now it's time to enter payment information. The financing options CarsDirect kept promising look a bit better than my Credit Union can provide, so I decide to apply for a loan through them and see what happens. After all, they promise that most decisions are made within "60 seconds." Fine. I filled out the loan application, and clicked to post it, and...I'm asked if I wanted the extended warranty! Really, no thanks, guys. I was next whisked to a screen that told me what would happen next. Nowhere did it mention anything about my financing decision. It took 108 hours from when I clicked the button to apply before I had an answer. Perhaps they made the decision in 60 seconds, but they failed to inform me of what it was.

Within minutes, an email arrived from the CarsDirect. I'll quote from it directly:

>Within one to two business days you will be
>contacted by your dedicated CarsDirect.com
>Service Advisor who will give you an update
>on the status of your order, and guide you
>along the way through delivery. To learn more
> about the CarsDirect.com order process,
>please visit: How to get your car
>
>If you have any questions feel free to contact
>us at 1-800-431-2500, and please refer to the
>customer transaction number listed above.
>
>Thank you for choosing CarsDirect.com.
>We look forward to making this your best
>car-buying experience ever. From your friends
>at CarsDirect.com, America’s #1 way to buy cars online.

>
>P.S. Did you see our industry-leading extended
>vehicle service contracts on our Web site?
>If not, click here. Also be sure to ask your
>Service Advisor about our financial products.
>We offer a wide variety of loans and leases
>that may meet your needs
.

Note yet another attempt to sell me that extended warranty, and I was sure to talk to my advisor about loans, since apparently that's the only way I'd ever learn about what happened after I'd filled out the form on their site.

Indeed, their service consultant called the next day (while I was out). He did send another confirming email (hey, he didn't try to sell me an extended service agreement...yet). I was amused by the concluding line: "I look forward to making the purchase of your new vehicle your best car buying experience ever!" Sorry CarsDirect, even if we'd manage to tango to the conclusion of the dance, you'd already failed at that assertion.

Problem #7: I still didn't know if CarsDirect could find a vehicle that exactly matched my request. I note with an upraised eyebrow that the site now claims to find "the vehicle that comes closest" to meeting your request. In "Step 2" of the process email I was sent, I note the line "and if it is not an exact match to your order, I will also tell you what is missing and what is extra on the vehicle that we found...when you agree to the vehicle, I will give you your total out the door pricing." I'm starting to understand what Limited Availability might mean. Hmm. CarsDirect is sounding more and more like a traditional car salesman every second. I wondered what vehicle I was about to be bait-and-switched to, and just how different the eventual bottom line price would be to the price they quoted on their site. Sounds more and more like dealing with a local dealer every minute, doesn't it?

[3 days pass]

I heard again from CarsDirect. According to my "service advisor," no loan information was transmitted. Score another one for Web site problems. But the first question out of his mouth after reading the specs of the vehicle I wanted was "so just how soon do you need this vehicle?" I'd have to guess that he had looked in their database and didn't find a match. When I told him I still had a month before my current vehicle goes off lease, he told me that "he'd look for 'an incoming' vehicle that meets my specs," which might take some time.

Meanwhile, Dealer #3 sent another email (a week after the first):

>Thank you for Choosing Dealer #3 as your internet dealer.
>
My name is Salesperson #2. I am one of the Internet Services
>Managers here at Dealer #3. It is my job to make sure you
>have been contacted by your Dealer #3 Internet Sales Consultant
>and that all your questions have been answered to your complete
>atisfaction. If you are in need of any further assistance,
>please call your Internet Sales Consultant or myself at
>xxx-xxx-xxxx. I will be looking forward to assisting you.
>I can assure you that your experience here at Dealer #3
>will be second to none.

Has Dealer #3 heard of a phone? And are they ever going to respond to the particulars of my request? At least the closing line is correct: since none of the other dealers have replied, my experience with them was indeed second to none.

Closer to home, Dealer #5's latest newspaper ad promised that they had eight of one of my target vehicles in stock. I decided to check out their Web site. Well, there were only six, but perhaps they sold two of them between placing the ad and when I checked. So I sent them an email asking for particulars (again, the site doesn't even tell me which engine the vehicles have, let along any of the other options). Here's what I got back:

>On Behalf of Dealer #5 we would like to thank
>you for taking advantage of our on-line services.
>Internet customers receive special treatment here
>at Dealer #5, because we hope we understand how
>you want to purchase your next vehicle.
>My name is Salesperson #4, I am the Internet
>Marketing Director and will be helping you in
>the purchase of your new vehicle. We are committed
>to making your purchase experience fun and hassle free.
>Would you prefer to be contacted by phone or e-mail?
>Please reply with contact preference so we can
>communicate efficiently. I will be contacting you
>within 4 hours or the next business day to give
>you an update on your purchase request.
>If you have any questions, I can be reached at
>xxx-xxx-xxxx, or by replying to this e-mail.

I replied immediately by email. Haven't heard a thing since. Their Web site also had a Configure Your Own Vehicle button, which took me to what looked like Maker #4's site (but was apparently a regional clone). Once again I configured a vehicle. The site said it sent an email to Dealer #5. A few minutes later, I received an email in my InBox. The subject was listed as "Undeliverable: Buying Vehicle Information." At the very bottom was this message: "Could not be delivered for the following reason: Invalid user." The bulk of the message was XML code for my database entry. Curiously, they embed both the dealer and their Internet center's contact information within the PROSPECT definition. I'm not sure I'd design the database that way. Moreover, there's a strange construct used for the CONTACT, VENDOR, and ORGANIZATION fields (which ends up repeating the NAME field for the VENDOR, tsk, tsk.

But "Invalid User"? Is that me or the dealer? And what's the point of sending me the email? Shouldn't it be going to the email address listed for Internet center? USER is not a defined field in the XML, so I can't tell. Sigh.

But here's the punch line: two days after receiving that message, I get another email message from the site, asking if I had been contacted yet (click on URL #1 if I have, click on URL #2 if I haven't). So I clicked. Only to be taken to a page with the following message:

Database Error. Code 003:000475874

Are we having fun yet, or what?

By now, I was wondering whether the Internet was the way to go. I decided to stop by a local dealer and check CarDirect's assertion that the vehicle I wanted wouldn't be available for awhile. Sitting on the lot was a Silver 5-speed with all but one of my requested options, and that one could be installed by the dealer. I test drove the vehicle (again) just to make sure it was what I remembered it to be (it was). I told the dealer I was pretty interested, but had to head to France in a few days, so wasn't in a big hurry. That night, I made my decision--I'd buy that vehicle. In order to keep some pretext of using the Internet for the deal, I sent the salesman an email with my offer.

I never heard from that dealer again.

Meanwhile, CarsDirect merged with greenlight.com, and I got a phone call from a new service advisor, who started the whole process of asking about various options and what I could and couldn't live with all over again. And once again I got the promise that he'd get back with after he had checked the database.

Two days later I got an email from him saying that they were cancelling the order, as they didn't think they could find a vehicle that matched my order (hey guys, one is sitting in a dealer's lot less than 5 miles from me!).

Miffed at everything Internet-related, I targetted another local dealer. Five minutes after I walked into the showroom, my real-life salesman quoted me a price $600 under invoice (and $1600 under CarDirect's price) for a vehicle with everything I wanted, in the color I wanted. As it turned out, it took this dealer two days to make good, as the vehicle they were quoting had already been sold by the dealer who had it. Nevertheless, I ended up with a bright, shiny, and relatively inexpensive vehicle equipped just like I wanted, and far faster than even one round of email with any of the Internet alternatives I'd tried.

After driving my new chariot home for the first time, I entered my office to find an email from Dealer #3 asking if I was still interested in a vehicle (it was the last day of the month, by the way). Sorry folks, you had your chance.

Conclusions

My conclusion? Car buying on the Internet ain't ready for prime time. Heck, it isn't even ready for filming a pilot. And most dealers don't seem to understand how to communicate via email, let alone how to migrate the "conversation" to phone. Data available about cars on the Internet is often contradictory or incomplete, and tools that various players have built aren't yet robust enough to have their tires kicked.

Use the Internet to research what cars are available and what various reviewers think of them. Use the Internet to find out what options are available and a general idea of the list price and invoice price, as this'll get you close enough to know if you're getting a decent deal when you walk into a dealership. Finally, use the Internet to get an idea of the value of your present vehicle (if you're using it for a trade in). Beyond that, you're better off doing the dance with your local dealer, especially if you can find one that's curtious, friendly, and willing to deal with you fairly. Mine got me better financing than my credit union could, filled all the paperwork out in advance of my arriving to pick up the vehicle, took another $60 off the price to compensate me for having to wait, and even filled the gas tank up, despite making very little on the deal. Match that, dotcom-ers, and you'll get me as a customer. Fail to do as well, and, well, you'll fail.

In case any car manufacturer or dealer out there is listening, here's what I want:

p.s. Carpoint followed up with an email asking for feedback on the process. I clicked on the provided link to fill out their survey. Here's question #3 in it's entirety:

3. Please rate your overall satisfaction with . (choose 1)
Very Satisfied
Satisfied
Dissatisfied
Very Dissatisfied

I'd say it's a safe bet that I'm Very Dissatisfied, even though I have no idea what it is I'm rating.

Robert Morris writes: God Bless you for taking the considerable time to tell the story of the complete idiocy of "internet car buying." Your experience EXACTLY parallels mine. It seems the car manufacturers, internet car buying services and dealers are the ONLY PEOPLE ON THE PLANET who think that their ridiculous, time-wasting and demeaning system works. The best internet info I got was dealer invoice pricing on the car I wanted configured as I wanted it. I finally did precisely the same as you did -- walked into a nearby dealer, found EXACTLY what I was looking for, made a below-invoice offer which was accepted and drove away minutes later. The whole internet experience was delightfully and deviously enhanced by periodic freezes and crashes of my new laptop with Windows ME.

Thom's Response: The really sad thing about your email is that it came almost exactly a year after I wrote my original piece. In other words: after a year, nothing has improved. Gee, even Microsoft can make a claim that they've improved in the last year; really, the auto industry should be ashamed of themselves.


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