Buy a Car Off the Internet?

2010 Camaro SS

The other day, I bought a 2010 Camaro SS off the Internet. More specifically, I bought it from Aaron Smith of Motorphilia. They have an interesting business model. But how I got on Aaron’s radar is every bit as interesting a story as the fact that I bought this car, without kicking the tires. And I have some ideas for car dealerships and others who want to understand how a $40,000 product can be sold virtually (oh – and thanks to Aaron Smith’s efforts, I didn’t pay $40K for the car: he found me a great deal).

It Started With a Blog Post

A few weeks back, I wrote a post about how car dealership websites suck. I was frustrated, because I wanted to comparison shop and found that the dealerships within 50 miles of me (and there are many) all had horrible websites with really difficult navigation, and a lack of useful information. Worse still, they weren’t exactly doing much to bring me in for a visit. But I’ll get back to that. First, just realize that I wrote this post.

The post populated on Facebook. Aaron Smith from Motorphilia saw the note in his stream and dropped me a line (FOUR MINUTES AFTER THE POST WENT LIVE). He said, “Hey, saw you were looking for a new Camaro. I found a few you might want to hear about. Interested?”

Lesson #1: The people who LISTEN for business beat the people waiting around for business to find them.

Actually, it Started a Year Before All This

In April 2009, I visited GM headquarters. I got to drive a Cadillac CTS and a CTS-V, but then I got to play with the Camaro RS (the littler engine version of the SS). It wasn’t even out on the market yet. I felt amazingly blessed.

I should put an aside in to say that I’m not much of a car guy, really. Or I wasn’t. I’ve never owned a “cool” car. I’ve owned all (but one) GM cars since I stared driving, though, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to get interested in a Camaro. And why? Because the newer model looks like the Batmobile, and I’m a Batman kinda guy. (Okay, I know someone will say the Corvette is more like the Batmobile, but they’re like an entirely different tribe of people, Vette types, and that’s not my thing.)

But Buying A Car Off the Internet?

I admit that it’s a little weird to buy a car off the Internet. If I hadn’t met Aaron a few times in person (he even gave me a ride around Austin in a Prowler), I might have been a bit less likely to trust a website-based car sale. But, again, when you read Motorphilia’s business model, it feels like they’re the kind of relationship you want to have.

If I didn’t know Aaron, I’d recommend that he put a few pictures of himself and/or his staff on the site. We relate to pictures. In fact, there’s a lot of “we” language on the site, and normally, without any sense of who “we” is, that’s a potential turnoff. However, and here’s the next big lesson:

Lesson: Aaron Smith’s @motorphilia efforts in social media are warm, friendly, and always on.

Aaron and team know the value of social media. He’s active on Facebook, on Twitter, on their blog, and in several other locations, as well. It’s the exact opposite of the mainstream local dealership model. Instead of waiting for people to show up for test drives (and/or sending out flyers and other dead tree products and local commercials), Aaron’s team invests time and effort into human-based connections that they hope to translate into sales.

Trust and Buying Something Sight Unseen

I admit that looking at photos of a car that I intend to buy is like moving into a house that you’ve only seen remotely. It’s spooky. It’s not how things are done. I further admit that I am a bit strange, in that I buy many things off the Internet, so I’m not your typical mainstream buyer. Finally, I will cop to the admission that I knew that if something went wrong, that I’d raise holy hell about it, and that felt like a great insurance policy. But since I dared to do it, I can vouch for the service.

It Requires a Bit of Awareness and Conviction

I already knew that I wanted a Camaro. I already knew the rough price of the car I wanted. I knew that I didn’t want to haggle (my last five cars were Saturns because they sales method is: ‘here’s the price, no matter who you are.’ And all of this really suited the buying scenario of an online purchase. There may or may not have been negotiating room in the price, but I’ve got to be honest: Aaron found me a car that was $4500 less expensive than the three I’d found within 20 miles from my house (and the one he found me had tons fewer miles – only 1100).

If you needed lots of test drives, or if you wanted to really negotiate and do a lot of hand-holding and tire-kicking, then online obviously wouldn’t be a good fit. Also, I can’t advocate taking up a dealership’s time on test driving, only to buy somewhere else. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do.

What Does This Say for Dealerships, Though?

Local car dealerships find themselves in a potential bind. What used to be a sure thing is now far from it. Many car manufacturers had to thin out their dealership relationships over the last few years. Local print and TV media have been decimated making it harder to get a local dealership’s ads seen. Location and proximity help keep some customers at hand, but it clearly didn’t work for me. Will the rest of the Netflix generation feel that way, too?

And if local dealerships keep avoiding the social web, how many more buyers like me will they miss?

Since writing the first post over a month ago, I never once heard from a dealership within 100 miles of me. I heard from one other online dealership, but that’s it. So, no one from the local world claimed my $40,000. It went to Texas.

Obviously, we won’t all just buy on the net. We won’t all forego test drives. We wont have such an affinity for a product that we’ll buy it without a lot of comparison shopping. But there are signals here to consider, and there are opportunities to grow. What follows are a few potential takeaways, and then a couple of videos I shot with thoughts about the car.

Takeaways for Car Dealerships

New 2010 Camaro SS

  • Make your sites more mobile-friendly. Flash doesn’t cut it in the smartphone era.
  • Add listening tools to your marketing efforts.
  • Have a social presence, so you can respond and invite in potential buyers.
  • Work with the manufacturers’ social media people, like Christopher Barger at GM and Scott Monty at Ford (and your manufacturers of choice).
  • Look for alternatives to the current business models, as sales won’t rush up on gimmicks and discounts alone.
  • Consider the after-sale. I just bought a Camaro SS. Do you doubt that I’m prime for aftermarket and/or related offers? Heck, I couldn’t even find my tripometer reset until this afternoon. I’d be a perfect candidate to build a deeper relationship with, and you’d have a sales funnel extension.
  • Equip your buyers with social extenders. People don’t buy cars fast enough for you to build a single relationship. Seek the referral, and the share. Not one local dealership had a Facebook Like button next to each make/model.

The rest, I’ll let you figure out. Or, you can work with me. I might even have some experience in this field. : )

Now, the Videos

I’ve never been much of a car person. I’m not one for spending lots of money. I’m definitely not one for spending money on myself (unless it’s for business materials). I bought the car because I won’t benefit from a cool car when I’m 70. I bought it because I haven’t really celebrated my last several years’ hard work in any tangible way. I bought it because I wanted my own Batmobile. Here are a few videos related to the experience:

On buying a car through Motorphilia:
(apologies for my hair. It was still wet.)

My first night drive in the Camaro:

Thoughts on Buying a 2010 Chevy Camaro SS:

Thanks for indulging me. It was quite an experience, and I’ve been dying to tell the story, but had to wait until the car arrived, and/or until all the bits lined up. I haven’t ever had a second car for my family, so this will also open up some opportunities in logistics. And hey, it’s a darned fun car to drive.

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