Left behind the net

Columnist : Albert Paschall

I’ve been buying my cars from the same guy for about 10 years now.  Steve knows what I like and knows that I spent a little time in my errant youth in auto showrooms.  The combined experience makes me a customer with a little knowledge.  That’s about the most dangerous thing in a car dealership.  Steve long ago tried to stop telling me about engine sizes, tires and technology.  He knows I look for the important things like stereo systems and interior colors.  And he knows I won’t work the deal that’s showroom talk for haggle.  I’m not an ordinary up (that’s a customer) because I generally order by phone knowing that when the deal is worked Steve and the dealer will be there to back me up.  That’s why I am ashamed to admit that I tried to replace Steve with on-line shopping.

I went car shopping the 2000 way – I surfed the ‘net.  I knew what I wanted.  After looking at newspaper ads I knew the lowest prices and which cars had the right 6-speaker stereo CD player, and, of course, the all-important color that I had to have.  Then I went and tried to replace Steve with the world wide web.  At first I thought I did.  A guy in Reading gave me the very best deal.  Unfortunately it was in Reading England not Berks County and the deal was offered in British pounds which made it a little more expensive.  A dealer in Scranton had the offer that couldn’t be refused with free oil changes for the life of the car.  Great idea but for me it would mean a 400 mile round trip.  Knowing the long frustrating hours they work I didn’t have the heart to tell the sales lady in Erie who sent me such a detailed response that I was on the other side of the state.

But that’s the car business and the thin skinned need not apply.  Dealers are right in the middle between the customer and the manufacturer.  And the manufacturers would like to force the dealers out and take over the direct sales of cars and trucks using the Internet.

Of the some 1300 auto dealers in Pennsylvania the vast majority are locally owned and they are decidedly not assembly line franchises like fast food joints.  Local auto dealers drive the components of the sale, price and service while product design and marketing are entirely in the hands of the manufacturer.  Manufacturers can impose quality control standards on dealers but today with global car companies producing 25% more vehicles than consumers will buy competition generally forces the standards to be higher.  Now with sales over the Internet manufacturers are putting the pedal to the metal to control the point of sale, that is take over the dealerships.  In theory the concept is totally efficient.  It eliminates duplication in dealerships.  But it also gets rid of the local sales and service people.  While free market enthusiasts claim that it will broaden competition the fact is that within brand structures it will actually minimize competition and probably eliminate brand competition completely in rural markets.  While you might have several Chevy, Ford or Honda dealers close to home if the manufacturers control the retail market you probably will have only one.  Sure you can use the ‘net for the price but the chances are going to be a lot higher that you will have to drive 400 miles for that oil change if your car has to be just the right color with the exact 6-speaker CD player that you want.

But Steve doesn’t have to worry, like the license plates used to say: auto dealers have friends in Pennsylvania.  160 members of the Pennsylvania House are sponsoring House Bill 2200 that will put the brakes on manufacturers who want to roll over dealers.  It’s a deal that works well for consumers and mirrors laws that 34 other states already have rolling.  When the law gets into gear next year you can still surf the ‘net and then work the deal at whatever dealer you want, wherever you want to be the next ‘up.’

Undoubtedly someday the ‘net will make a bigger difference in the way we buy almost anything but it still has a long way to go before it replaces humans.  Take Steve for instance.  He just personally dropped off something for my new car that I left on his desk, that’s service for you.  It seems I left behind the net that goes in the trunk to hold the grocery bags.