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by Paul Waterhouse

July 09, 2001 | One of the proud boasts of the e-commerce world is that you can buy anything online. Paper clips. Cheese puffs. Even a car.

Utilizing the unlimited expense account from my newspaper column, I fearlessly set out to test this reality. Since I have plenty of paper clips and I hate cheese puffs, I decided to buy a car.

There isn't much difference between web advertisements for autos and the ones they print in the newspaper or show on television. They are all completely forgettable. The main difference is that on the web you can actually read the fine print that the auto maker's flash on the television screen for a nanosecond or so. Like the one with the car driving vertically up the wall: "Stunt Driver: Do Not Try This At Home". Somehow, you expect more from products purchased from the web. Like the ability to drive a car up your living room wall.

According to Conventional Wisdom (meaning the hype produced by the three or four dotcom's that have a stock price above .02 cents) anything you buy online is cheaper and more convenient.

There are great auto deals on-line.

There isn't much for $2.75. Ever since newspapers went online and splurged through millions of dollars figuring out how to run auto advertisement banner ads, newspaper columnist expense accounts nationwide have been reimbursed by using the coin return button on designated news vending machines. George Will gets all the machines in Dixie, Dave Barry gets the rest of North America, columnists for the Washington Post get the rest of the world minus Albania. The rest of us get Albania. This is how the global economy works in an online world. "Micro-Payments", an e-commerce term, was pioneered as a concept by newspaper expense payment departments.

Still, we needed a new car, and every on-line auto dealer advertises financing for "No Credit, Bad Credit, and Even Newspaper Columnists".

In the past year there has been a lot of consolidation in auto sites on-line. The first thing you'll notice is that they are much more concerned with collecting your personal details than selling you a car. The second thing that you'll find is that, as usual, claims by web sites are short of the mark.

I started with The site that claims to know everything about buying vehicles and the vehicles themselves. They also run an endless series of cheesy TV ads. Some of which feature bird guano which is, as it turned out, very apropos where Vehix is concerned.

Vehix requires you to start by entering a zip code. According to the "site that knows everything" there are no vehicles of any type available to anyone living in my zip code. This is known technically as a "program shortcoming". Consumers call this "muttonhead geography".

I didn't want a Honda, but I do know that there is a Honda dealership 8 miles from my house. So I searched by make. According to Vehix there is 1 Honda Civic (not one dealership - one car) available within 50 miles from my home. Or alternatively, Vehix thinks that my zip code is in Kabul. My rating for Yet another global Internet company that only works if you live in down-town Manhattan.

What we actually wanted was a Ford F-150 truck.

Do you know why they call it the world wide web? Because if you sit down in front of a computer to take the "few moments" that e-commerce sites tell you it'll take to do something, in about 40 years they'll find your shriveled up body covered in cobwebs still waiting for step 356 to appear after clicking "next".

Once you've got through laying out your entire life history, auto sites have a 100,000 vehicles listed and will be able to find the vehicle with the exact configuration you want and let you compare prices.

Knowing how sophisticated e-commerce software is we kept our needs simple: A Ford F-150 with a tow package, extended cab, A/C, automatic transmission, bucket seats, a CD Player, an engine and at least four wheels. I was able to price this configuration online and double check the cost from several different sources.

Although, it was difficult figuring out why installing a CD player and electric door-locks requires one to upgrade the axle gear ratio. (Actually I don't even know what an axle gear ratio is). Perhaps the engine spins the disk. On-line auto dealers don't bother doing the Amazon thing and listing what "previous buyers" got with their selection. If you click the box marked "chrome wheel package" $2,500 worth of options like "sun roof" are automatically filled in for you. Still, no one can accuse the web of being a fast talking car dealer. I was able to cook a three course meal in between selecting a tow package, clicking "update price" and getting a really cool looking racing stripe decal.

You can't do that by visiting a car dealer in the real world. This could be what e-commerce pundits mean by "convenience".

The next step in the process is to fill out a contact form ("Please select Yes to submit your entire life history to our dealer network") and your exact requirements will be instantly placed in front of every dealer within 150 miles. In my case, eleven of them from Orlando to Homestead (between 50 and 350 miles from home - auto sites can't count miles, either).

Despite these setbacks we sat and waited for 11 sales folks anxious to be of service to make an offer.

One responded.

Only one other dealership sent an e-mail telling us that we "need look no further because they had what we needed". It was an e-mail auto-responder - that's still responding. Every time we send them an e-mail saying "Please shut up - we bought the truck already!" they send us another e-mail telling us to "look no further".

Working with the one dealer attached to a real person we discovered that the definition of "exact configuration" is "exactly what's on the lot". As for price comparison, the on-line prices compare nicely between vehicles but the virtual world does not necessarily compare it's price to the one the dealer wants to get you for.

The only "exact" about car buying on line is that it's exactly like buying a computer. You can buy a computer for $299 these days. By the time you've added on the ten or so option packages (like a monitor) they make you buy to get the three things you wanted a computer can cost anything up to $3500. So it goes with vehicles.

Meanwhile the one dealer that responded sold us a truck that (to paraphrase the late, great Douglas Adams) was almost exactly, but not quite, entirely unlike the truck we wanted. The vehicle we wanted only exists in the virtual reality of the "premier on-line auto buying site". The transaction did, thanks to spending about 20 hours online and dickering by phone, only take an hour or so on the lot.

Did using the web to buy an automobile save us money? According to a source in the auto industry (the sales person who closed the deal), "You Bethca Butt!".

And did the web add to the buying experience?

Only if you count all the laughing done at clueless technology providers and auto dealers who went ".com" with nary an idea about how it works.

Paul Waterhouse is a freelance writer residing in Florida. He previously wrote about Y2K for Mindjack.

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