News flash: Online car buyers confused.
Wait a minute, you say. Is that news? Car buying is for many consumers the most dreaded, anxiety-provoking consumer experience.
Well, the fact that online car buying has followed the lead of its real-world counterpart is news — and bad news at that — for e-commerce.
Most people I know would much rather buy a house than a car. Yes, houses cost 10 times as much and take 30 years to pay off instead of five, but there’s only one price listed in the newspaper for a house.
Cars are another story. The model in the newspaper ad with the thousand cash back? That’s only an example, the salesman says. That model was sold, but let me show you something in your range … you know the drill.
So along comes the Internet, promising to revolutionize the car-buying process. And in many ways, the potential for revolution is there.
However, all that car Web sites have managed to do so far is move the confusion from the corner parking lot to the Net. At least that’s the conclusion of a recent study from CNW Marketing Research, which found that the car prices quoted online were often higher than the prices dealers offer people in the offline world.
I tried to use the Internet to buy a new car just a few months ago. As advertised, it was a good way to research and compare makes and models. But when it came time to compare prices, all hell broke loose.
A local dealership had its “Internet-only” deal posted on the model I wanted, so I dropped him a note. What about the cash back that the dealer was offering? Can that be included?
Days passed with nothing back. Then, finally, a phone message arrived, asking me to call the dealer back so he could explain exactly what “cash back” really meant. The dealers who promised me the rebate? Well, they weren’t liars, not exactly, but, well, it’s complicated.
But it shouldn’t be. A price should be a price. And the price on the Internet should be a lower price, right? Otherwise, what is my motivation for using the Internet at all? If I’m going to save a few hundred dollars by driving to the dealership, then I’ll do it.
Now, however, it is pretty clear that there are games being played with car prices on the Web. And it’s a dangerous game that could take Web car sales down a dead-end road.
After all, who is better equipped to find out the true invoice price for a vehicle than a savvy Internet user? And that is precisely the type of person most likely to try to buy a car online.
The CNW study says “consumers are not as trusting of online automotive data as they were just a year ago.” That’s definitely driving in the wrong direction. It’s probably not too late to reverse, but damage done this early in the game is not easy to erase. Shoppers have long memories.
Facts Is Facts
The solution? Make the Web side of car buying as much of a fixed-price, open-book scenario as possible. Everyone should know up front what the offer is, how the options and custom choices add up, and all of those extra, hidden details.
The idea of using the Web to sell products on price alone died with a couple hundred dot-coms in the past year or so. And the automakers and dealers aren’t about to undersell themselves online, effectively taking money out of their own pockets.
But consumers need some reason to use the Internet to actually buy cars instead of to simply look around at makes and models. So if price is out, that leaves only convenience and ease-of-use.
If car shoppers click away from an automotive Web site more confused than when they click on, online car sales will remain stalled for a long time to come.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.