After taking delivery of her torch-red 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51 at an Ohio dealership this month, Elizabeth Farrar had plenty of time to bond with it on the drive home.
That's because she lives in Meridian, Miss., more than 700 miles away.
"This car's kind of special, and I wanted to be the first one in Meridian with one," says Farrar, a doctor and first-time Corvette owner. "We did everything over the phone, and when it was delivered, I booked a one-way plane ticket to Columbus and drove it back."
Farrar said nearby dealers told her they wouldn't get any Stingrays in stock for months, and a store she contacted in Atlanta demanded $5,000 more than sticker price. An Internet search led her to salesman Rick Conti in Pataskala, Ohio, where the only extra charge was the plane ticket. Conti's dealership, Coughlin Chevrolet, even picked her up at the airport.
Consumers such as Farrar are increasingly traveling longer distances in search of their perfect cars and, more important, the perfect car-buying experience. Internet advertising enables dealers to connect with customers in outlying markets, and shoppers can easily compare stores' inventories, prices and reputations.
For dealers, the downside of faraway buyers is that they are harder to profit from beyond the initial sale, with few likely to come back for service. And the logistics of working with them -- whether it's mailing documents back and forth or going so far as to deliver cars hundreds of miles away -- can eat away at the already-thin margins many vehicles produce. Still, each long-distance sale represents incremental revenue and a step closer to hitting monthly sales targets, along with the potential for positive word-of-mouth that can drive more sales.
Jason Jager, who heads the industry relations group at Internet shopping site AutoTrader.com, says long-distance customers tend to be younger, more active on the Internet and more eager to write glowing reviews afterward. Others who see that a dealer has many positive reviews might also go out of their way to shop there.
"If a dealer is merchandising their vehicles well, pricing vehicles competitively and delivering on that promise, there's really no end to the distance which car shoppers are willing to travel," Jager says. "And it creates a halo effect because they're going to be more likely to speak highly of that dealership."
AutoTrader found in a 2012 study that, although 45 percent of buyers lived within 10 miles of the dealership, 20 percent lived more than 30 miles away. It noted that 23 percent of those who researched their purchases on the Internet were willing to travel more than 30 miles, compared with just 15 percent of those who made their decision entirely offline.