Final Inspection

A Vote for Cyber-Selling

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It appears to be a mixed bag out there among automobile dealers, with some embracing Internet selling wholeheartedly and others still somewhat reluctantly tiptoeing around the edges.

As our newly published e-dealer 100 list attests, there’s metal to be moved in marketing through cyberspace. Many dealers recognize this, and some are shifting more than half their advertising dollars to Internet-based initiatives. One dealer tells Ward’s a third of his new- and use-vehicle sales last year were Internet-linked.

See Ward's 2010 e-Dealer 100 Rankings.

But as a Ward’s special report on the top e-dealers indicates, many dealers still are sorting out the process, unsure of best practices and reluctant to allocate too many resources to Internet selling only to find themselves in an unprofitable bidding war with a potential customer or wasting too much energy answering queries from shoppers who may not be all that serious about buying in the first place.

See Ward's e-Dealer 100 Special Report

However, having just purchased a new car start to finish over the World Wide Web, I’d like to cast a strong vote for Internet selling – at least from a consumer’s perspective.

Admittedly, I had the advantage of already test driving several vehicles of interest through my job, so even before starting our search in earnest, my wife and I had narrowed our choice down to a couple of makes and models without having to step foot inside a showroom.

The real effort began with researching vehicle equipment levels, exterior and interior colors, pricing and incentive offers on two different auto makers’ websites.

There were some frustrating hiccups at times, but for the most part both worked well and were fairly easy to navigate.

Once we decided on the right vehicle, we solicited bids from local dealers directly through the manufacturer’s site. We also tapped warehouse-type retailer Costco, which offers a new-car discount program to its members through its website.

Salespeople emailed us soon after receiving our query, and most understood how the process should work, responding immediately with pricing and availability information.

Only one out of about a half-dozen replying to our request for a quote tried to convince us to make an appointment instead. We crossed that dealer off our list. If we wanted to come in and talk, we would have done that in the first place.

As expected, Costco’s price proved the most attractive. But only one dealer was affiliated with the program, and that showroom was a good 45 minutes from where we live. We preferred to strike up a relationship with a dealer closer to home to make servicing easier.

Still, we were able to use that as the benchmark bottom line in negotiating with the others – all via email. And, ultimately, we were able to come within a few bucks of the Costco price. Other websites are out there listing dealer invoice prices that can be used as leverage to negotiate an attractive deal.

We zeroed in on one dealership based on price, location, reputation and gut feel. After some back-and-forth emailing to pin down the price and equipment with a very patient saleswoman, we set up an appointment to finalize the deal. The vehicle was out of stock and had to be ordered. But because everything had been worked out ahead of time, all the paperwork was ready for us when we arrived, and the whole process took less than 15 minutes.

Weeks later we negotiated a financing rate with the dealer (also via email), applied and was approved for the loan online and picked up the vehicle the next day.

No fuss, no muss. And a far cry from the days when salespeople and their general managers would all but lock you in the showroom until closing time in an effort to get you to sign on the bottom line for a deal that was “good for today only.”

At delivery, our saleswoman, the only one working Internet leads at her dealership, appeared wary as she pressed us on whether we were happy with the Internet buying experience.

Believe me, she had nothing to worry about.

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What's Final Inspection?

WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

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Dave Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into WardsAuto.com, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at WardsAuto.com, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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