Tonight, I'm shopping for something much more expensive than a book. I'm comparing price quotes on a 2000 Oldsmobile Intrigue GL from the Chicago area. The Intrigue I am looking for should have four doors, a 3.5 liter V6 engine with an automatic transmission and a standard accessory package.
As I begin my search for a car online I realize the first advantage to car shopping via the Internet: all the dealerships' salespeople are probably at home and asleep.
For the most part, the referral sites are similar. Each offers a search option and allows the user to input requests or comments to be read by a sales rep from a dealership. I requested a price quote from the dealership; no visits, no test drives.
All the sites sent my requests to various local dealerships. In some cases, I could choose the dealer I preferred. In other cases, that choice was made for me by the site.
The first Web site I visited was Microsoft Corp.'s MSN CarPoint site (carpoint.msn.com). Microsoft truly is everywhere, and now Bill Gates wants to sell me a car. The site is easy to navigate through and within five minutes, I've finished making my request. The site lets me choose from two nearby dealerships. I pick one and learn a salesman named Bob will be in touch with me within two working days, excluding weekends.
Next, I visit Autobytel.com and fill out an inquiry form. The top of the form clearly states, "For serious buyers only." I wondered if this line is supposed to scare users who, like me, who just want to know the price of a car as opposed to buying the car the day after a dealer contacts them. The warning makes me a little nervous, but its after midnight and I'm feeling a little adventurous. I filled out the form anyway.
After that, my car shopping was a lot less exciting.
Cars.com, owned by Classified Ventures, a Chicago venture of eight newspaper companies, was the next site. The inquiry form included categories such as "options package." That category included items I didn't want, therefore I didn't choose it. However, the site would not process the form unless I made a choice. The unexpected haggling over options caught me by surprise, but it added to my virtual shopping experience.
The good news is that I was able to have the answers to my inquiry sent to me via e-mail. There wasn't a hassle with someone having to call me, or with me needing to return a call. At first that seemed efficient and impersonal.
Then I contacted CarSmart.com, which was acquired last year by Autobytel. The site indicated it could provide me with a response within eight business hours, but that was not so. None of the dealerships in my suburban Chicago area is affiliated with CarSmart. So, from there my request was forwarded to Autobytel.
The next stop in my virtual auto mall was AutoWeb.com. This site allows consumers to compare cars in the same price class.
AutoVantage.com, a unit of Cendant Corp., told me it would contact me in four business days; the longest waiting period for any of the Web sites. I received an e-mail from the site within the stated four days.
I tried Greenlight.com, but sadly the Chicago area was not one of its 10 listed cities included in that service.
After all my inquiries had been submitted, it was time to sit back and let those price quotes roll in. After a couple of days, I thought maybe I had done something wrong. I knew my inquiries had been processed, because some of the sites confirmed by e-mail. I still had not received a phone call from a dealer.
Finally, a response. The first e-mail I received came from Autobytel with the name of a dealership and sales rep. Then the sales rep sent me an e-mail with information about how to contact him. I was surprised that neither e-mail included a price quote.
The next e-mail came from CarPoint. It included the name of the dealership, but not a price quote from the site. Later in the day, I received an e-mail from that dealer with a price quote. The quote listed the car's invoice price as $24,400 and the dealership's price as $22,663, plus document charges.
AutoVantage gave me a price quote of $150 over invoice, but it never said what the invoice price was. When I talked with the salesman from the dealership, his quote was for $100 over invoice or $22,665.
AutoWeb's e-mail told me a dealer would get in touch with me within 24 hours.
After looking at the e-mail responses again, I noticed AutoVantage and Autobytel referred my inquiry to the same dealership, although different salesmen responded. I asked my AutoVantage salesman about that and he explained he would be the lead contact. If I were to complete the sale, he would handle it. He said his dealership tries to keep pricing the same for both sites. I never received a quote from the other salesman through Autobytel.
PRICES CAN CHANGE
My online shopping experience may not be unique, according to a recent survey of 1,000 online shoppers conducted by Digital Marketing Services for Circuit City Stores' CarMax chain. The survey revealed prices given online often change when shoppers visit the dealerships.
The survey found 94% of those polled wanted firm, online price quotes, but only a third, or 37%, found them online. Nearly 72% of the surveyed car shoppers who got prices online found the price had changed when they visited the dealership. About 60% said they did not find the information online they needed to purchase a car, with a key part of the problem their inability to get a quick firm price online. About half said they waited two days or more for information.
Overall, I thought the best site was CarPoint. Surprise, Bill Gates does know car shopping! While online Web sites are a good way to research a vehicle purchase, for me, nothing will be able to replace actually visiting a dealership and test driving a car before purchasing it.