The internet has changed how we do so many things. Retail shopping, travel bookings, home entertainment have been revolutionized by the online world. One area that it has failed miserably in though, is shopping for a car.
Sure, most manufacturers have lovely websites where all of their cars are shown off. There are online tools for "building your own" car, to mix and match colors, interiors, and optional add-ons. You then have the ability to peek into local dealers inventory to see if the car you've "built", or a similar one, is available to purchase nearby.
It all sounds so convenient, modern, and stress-free.
The reality, however, is that it is all just smoke and mirrors.
It shouldn't come as a surprise. Historically, car dealers have always had a somewhat suspect reputation, along with lawyers and politicians. These are the professions that make the art of lying to your face a virtue.
The way the game works is when you use these online tools to research or build your car, the only way you can get a quote on what you are looking at is to provide contact information. Your info is funnelled off to several dealers that reach out to you and invite you to call and come in to discuss your new car interests. You get the quotes you are looking for, with VINs and descriptions of the vehicles each dealer has to offer you. It seems like things are working just as they are supposed to.
It was this pattern that my wife and I followed a few days ago. Of the list of three dealers we were given, one dealer's offer was for nearly the exact vehicle we were looking for, color and trim level, and price. The problem was, this particular dealer was about 40-45 minutes away. There were closer dealers, but none had what we were looking for, according to our online research.
Several years ago, when shopping for a car, I followed the same routine and when I showed up at the dealer, I was greeted with lame indifference and ignorance of the information the dealer had provided. No car remotely like what I was looking for was available, so I left, of course, with a very bad taste in my mouth. Since this episode was over four years ago, I hoped that things might have changed for the better this time around.
Trying to not repeat the fiasco of four years ago, and now with a completely different dealer, I called the dealership to make an appointment and verify that the car I was looking for was available to be seen. With a dealer that far away, my wife and I reasoned that it would be worth making the trip only if we were ready to make a deal, and we were. When I called, I was told that the car I was interested in was, in fact, in stock.
Off to the dealer we went on a rainy and miserable day. Looking on the bright side, it would be useful to see how the car performed in less than optimal conditions. We arrived and the salesperson, a young and somewhat ernest fellow patiently offered a test drive, with a different version of the vehicle we had come to see. A bad sign, but the long test drive was instructive.
Afterwards, we found ourselves sitting at his desk for a longer and longer time as he went to "find" where the vehicle we had come for was. The salesman returned finally to tell us that the vehicle we were interested in, that I called to verify was in stock, that we drove forty minutes past local dealers to get to, was "sold" and unavailable. He claimed that the computer inventory system "didn't update" and that was why we were told that our chosen car was in stock. But, he'd love to make a deal on a different vehicle, and would make us a "nice deal". We were uninterested in any other vehicle, and despite his entreaties that he "could get" what we wanted, we left, frustrated and angry. Hell, any dealer "could get" a car we wanted, we certainly didn't have to drive forty minutes for that.
Fool me twice, shame on me.
The reality of internet car shopping is that it really doesn't exist. There are the same several dealers for any car you might want, in any given geographical area. The financial crash of 2007 and the subsequent implosion in the auto industry resulted in a great many bankruptcies of car dealerships. Those that survived were left to dominate their local markets. Many dealerships are now owned by the same corporate entities, thus reducing competition even more.
The services that purport to provide "True Pricing" and referrals to dealers willing to sell cars "haggle free" have no control of this process. The dealers themselves retain all control over their inventory, inspite of what these referral services suggest. The only purpose of any of the internet websites for these dealers and manufacturers is simply to "get them in the door", and "we'll sell them what we have, not what they want". What choice do consumers have? None at all.
So, continue to buy anything at all offered on Amazon.com, book your trips on-line, and keep trying to find a movie worth watching on Netflix. Just don't try to buy a car, it's a fool's game.
Two days later, we checked the dealer's website inventory and the car we went to see was listed as available and in stock. Big surprise.