Notes from buying a new car online for the second time

In case you’re in the market for a new car, these few data points about a recent on-line buying experience may be of interest.

Here’s an interesting view of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) from the perspective of a car dealership. I mention this for two reasons:

a) The article is from AutoNews, a site which mostly caters to dealers and others in the car business. Its RSS feed is worth subscribing to in the few months that precede a car purchase. It’s a very different perspective from the consumer-oriented car sites out there.

b) I find it hard to reconcile this article with my experience, as I’ll describe in more details below.

To a large extent, car dealers’ interest in SEO is unsurprising. What business doesn’t care about its Google rank? But, having just bought a Toyota Sienna on-line last week, I have a hard time reconciling dealers’ efforts to get shoppers to their site with how bad the experience is once you get there.

Try and find an email address on the site of a Toyota dealership in Silicon Valley. I dare you. So, forget the email blast. Instead, you have to use stupid “contact us” forms in which you have to copy/paste multiple fields to simply describe what car you’re looking for. And they must know you’re copy/pasting, otherwise would they make the “comments” section so ridiculous small? And the phone number is a “required” field? As if.

I understand that it makes it easier for “lead tracking” software if the transaction starts with one of these forms, but after spending money on SEO do you really want to refuse to talk to customers in the way they prefer? Compare this to going to a dealership in person. They’ll talk to you in their office, they’ll talk to in the showroom, they’ll talk to you in the parking lot in the rain and, gender permitting, they’ll probably talk to you in the bathroom.

I know there are sites (including manufacturer sites) which propose to email local dealers for you, but I don’t know what arrangement they have and I don’t want to initiate a price negotiation in which the vendor already owes a few hundred dollars to a referrer if we strike a deal. I want to initiate direct contact.

At least this year I didn’t have to convince vendors to negotiate the price over email; unlike the first time I bought a car in this manner, three years ago, when over half of the dealers I corresponded with had no interest in going beyond an over-inflated introductory quote, followed by efforts to get me to “come talk at the dealership”. With comments such as “if I give you a price, what tells me you’re not going to take it to another dealership to ask them to beat it?”. Well, that’s the whole point, actually. Nowadays (at least among Toyota dealership in the San Francisco Bay Area) they have “internet sales managers” to do just that.

Once you clear the hurdle of contacting vendors on their web sites, the rest of the interaction is quite painless. “Internet sales managers” deserve their title. In my experience, most of them have no problem doing everything over email and respond in a straightforward way as long as you’re specific in your requests. I never once talked to anyone on the phone. And when I came to take delivery of the car, all had been agreed and my entire visit took one hour, most of it spent doing email while they cleaned the car. I don’t know why anyone would buy a car any other way. The total amount of time I spent on the whole process is less than it would have taken me to go to the closest dealership and negotiate one price.

As a side note, I used TrueCar (under a separate email account, of course) to get an idea of the price and I ended up paying $450 less than the TrueCar proposal. When contacted via their web site, that dealer initially gave me the same offer they had submitted via TrueCar, and we went down from there, based on competing offers from other dealers. I never mentioned the TrueCar offer to them.

Another side note: MSRP is actually very useful. Not as a an indication of the price to pay, of course, but as a checksum on the level of equipment of the car. It doesn’t change between dealers and allows you to ensure that you’re comparing cars with the same equipment level. Of course any decent programmer would scream that it’s a very bad checksum, if only because two options could cost the same, but it worked just fine for my purpose.

I still think that the whole third-party-dealership model is fundamentally broken. The on-line buying process doesn’t fix it, it’s just an added layer that hides some of the issues. As we say in computer science, there’s no problem that can’t be solved by adding another level of indirection. We say this tongue-in-cheek because it’s both true (in the short term) and horribly false (in the long term). The same applies to the US car sales process.

As a side note, now that the family is equipped with an admiral ship I have a 2001 VW Golf Turbo (manual transmission) to sell if anyone in the Bay Area is interested…

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