Scene 1: The note
It began simply enough for Bert Chism. A terse, to-the-point query from a nameless customer. It read: 'I am interested in a new Toyota Sienna XLE minivan. Please give me your best price. I am searching other dealerships.'
It was the opening salvo of e-commerce. Chism's job at Hoover Toyota, near Birmingham, Ala., is to monitor the dealership computer and answer customer e-mails. Chism, 49, is a new type of auto salesman. He doesn't walk the dealership lot sweet-talking and wheedling visitors into signing on the dotted line. Chism, a U.S. Treasury Department employee who took early retirement, came to Hoover Toyota three years ago with no experience selling cars.
He arrives at the dealership each day and flicks on a computer in his small office. He logs on to the Internet to collect e-mail messages. Some are requests for replacement parts. But these days, most are from nameless electronic shoppers browsing for vehicles and their prices.
In the faceless world of e-commerce, maybe they are real customers and maybe they are not. Maybe it's a crosstown competitor just snooping around for his prices. Maybe it's a 12-year-old kid whose parents are out of the house. Or maybe it's a bona fide customer - but who knows whether he or she will ever emerge from the electronic netherworld and appear in flesh and blood in the dealership? There might be just one question, and then - poof! - nothing else forever.
Chism responded to the e-mail immediately. Quick response is critical for Internet sales, say e-commerce experts. Potential customers are certain to find what they want elsewhere if they fail to get an answer from one retailer.
The responses also must be on target. Chism wanted to make sure he gave precisely the right information. He asked the customer to clarify that it was indeed an XLE specifically that he or she wanted. As you may know, Chism informed the e-mailer, many features on the Sienna XLE also are available on the less expensive LE. It's possible, the salesman pointed out, that what you want is available for less money.
XLE, the e-mailer responded. The e-mailer informed Chism that he knew about the different models and, for that matter, even knew their dealer invoice costs. What the e-mailer wanted to know, he told the salesman, was Hoover Toyota's price for the vehicle. 'How much over invoice are you going to charge me?'
Chism quickly drew up a detailed list of the options that would come on the XLE, just to make sure there would be no incorrect price comparisons with other models. Then he included the price. 'Please let me know if we can help you,' he typed, and he clicked the send button.
Mike Scudamore got the e-mail that night at home. Scudamore may be auto retailing's worst nightmare.
Scene 2: The stranger
Scudamore is college-educated, interested in and knowledgeable about cars, well-spoken, financially stable and creditworthy, and - at the moment he was reading Bert Chism's reply - he was champing at the bit to spend more than $25,000 on a new vehicle.
What makes him a nightmare is that he doesn't care for traditional auto retailing. He doesn't trust auto dealers. If he had his way, he would acquire his vehicles without ever going into a dealership. The less time spent in a dealership, the better.
Worst of all, like millions of other Americans, Scudamore now knows how to shop for what he wants without going into a dealership: He surfs the Internet. He downloads data from manufacturer Web sites. He compares information from competing retailers. He communicates with them by e-mail. He forces them to compete for his business with specifics, immediacy and honesty.
That is how Scudamore, a 41-year-old information systems director from Huntsville, Ala., went about finding his Sienna XLE. And it is how hundreds of thousands - some say millions - of other shoppers now are planning to do the same.
Scudamore had never met or heard of Chism. Scudamore cared about only two things at the moment: One, his wife wanted him to hurry up and find a new family minivan. Two, he wanted the auto industry to hurry up and provide him with honest information.
His online quest had begun a few weeks before he e-mailed Hoover Toyota. He first searched the Internet for the official Toyota Web site. The site, operated by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. of Torrance, Calif., is toyota.com. The Web site disseminates information about Toyota's U.S. products, including vehicle specifications such as wheel size and truck capacity. It also provides visitors with Manufacturers' Suggested Retail Prices.
But MSRPs mean nothing to Scudamore. Elsewhere on the Net, surfers can find information that auto retailers once jealously guarded: dealer invoice amounts, by model. The automakers know that information is there, Scudamore asserts. And the automakers themselves must supply it, he reasons, or else it wouldn't be there. 'They obviously want customers to have this information,' Scudamore says.
Scene 3: The search
Scudamore knew what vehicle he wanted. He knew the retailer's factory invoice. What he wanted to know now, as he passed through toyota.com and asked for available dealers within a 100-mile radius of Huntsville, was who would sell it to him closest to the invoice cost.
The Toyota site directed him to several dealerships. The e-mail message he sent to Bert Chism, 100 miles away on the south side of Birmingham, was the same one he sent to dealerships in northern Alabama and middle Tennessee.
To his exasperation, some of the dealerships merely invited him to shop - which was specifically what he did not want to do. Two dealerships never bothered to answer his request for information.
Among those that did reply, Scudamore was perplexed to find a wide range of prices. One dealer priced the van at $2,500 over invoice. Another was $1,200 over invoice, and the lowest was $700 over invoice.
Ten days after sending his last e-mail to the anonymous minivan shopper, Bert Chism sent another note, just as a friendly reminder. 'If you need any further assistance, please let me know,' the salesman typed.
But Hoover Toyota's price was not the lowest, and Scudamore let Chism's message sit in his computer for three weeks while he investigated the other offers. A Tennessee dealer had undercut Hoover's price. Scudamore e-mailed that dealer to accept. He asked the dealer to confirm the final price and made arrangements to drive two hours into Tennessee to buy the van.
To their dismay, when Scudamore and his wife sat down to sign the papers in Tennessee, they discovered an unexpected $150 add-on fee.
'What's this?' Scudamore asked. The salesman explained that it was an 'administrative' fee. All of the dealership's vehicles included it.
'But you never mentioned it,' Scudamore protested. Before driving up, he had asked for the total price of the vehicle, and the dealership had neglected to include that fee. Scudamore was suspicious. He told the salesman to take it off or he and his wife would drive back to Alabama.
The dealership refused. The Scudamores walked out.
'All I was asking for was an honest business transaction,' Scudamore says. 'Frankly, after that, even if they had taken off the $150, I wouldn't have given them my business.'
Scene 4: A calm voice
Still fuming, Scudamore e-mailed Bert Chism about the Tennessee incident. He wanted to know whether Hoover Toyota also intended to zing him with hidden costs.
'We want to earn your business,' Chism e-mailed back. 'Our dealership gives a fair price up front with no hidden costs. And if you're still interested in doing business, we can still get you the van.'
Later that day, Chism heard back from the customer.
He was still $400 too high, Scudamore told him. Scudamore acknowledged that everyone - even Hoover Toyota - deserves to make a profit. 'But every dollar of profit the dealer gets comes out of my pocket,' he said.
He zeroed in on one of the charges itemized on the Hoover price: a $200 advertising fee. It was the dealer's way of defraying its marketing overhead. He asked Chism if the dealership would take it off.
The next day, after conferring with the dealership manager, Chism e-mailed back to say the $200 would come off. He itemized the new sale price, showing Scudamore what the dealership's profit margin would be. It was not extravagant.
The salesman typed out every reason why the deal was good.
'Let's do business,' Scudamore e-mailed Chism. But this time, he stipulated, he wanted to know the absolute total price of the vehicle in advance. He wanted to walk into the dealership with a check already made out, and he wanted no surprises.
Chism agreed. Just to be on the safe side, the salesman picked up the telephone and called Scudamore. He said he just wanted to make sure there was a real body behind all those e-mails.
Scene 5: The joyful meeting
A week later, when the Sienna had arrived at the dealership, Scudamore and his wife drove two hours to Hoover Toyota, carrying a check already made out.
The atmosphere was jovial. Scudamore and Chism had never seen each other, and yet it was as if old friends were meeting, the customer says. While his wife filled out the paperwork, Scudamore small-talked with Chism.
'I knew from talking to him by e-mail what kind of person he was,' Scudamore says. 'When I got there, it was like walking into a room of old friends.'
Just 20 minutes after entering the showroom for the first time, the Scudamores were gone again, this time with their new Sienna XLE.
'We probably could have done it quicker if we didn't have to fill out the paperwork,' Scudamore says. 'All in all, I'd say it was a very positive experience. I'd recommend it for anyone planning to buy a new car.
'In fact,' he adds, 'I plan to recommend it to people.'
Lindsay Chappell is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Nashville, Tenn.