Frustrations in finding a CPO hatchback online
After years of leasing new vehicles, I decided to hang up my reservations about ownership and go all-in on a certified used hatchback.
But what I thought would be a breezy online search quickly turned into a technological nightmare that included accusations of attempted fraud.
Thankfully, though, I struck a down-to-the-wire deal to keep me in a set of wheels.
As a customer, I presented an unusual case. I wanted a certified pre-owned hatchback with plenty of cargo room and some of the latest tech features, such as Bluetooth and a backup camera. But I didn't want the longer-term financing deals most online retailers default to or a monthly payment significantly higher than what I had been paying — a set of requirements that quickly narrowed my options to a handful of 2013-16 models.
I dived into digital storefronts, including Asbury Automotive's, Autotrader, Carvana, General Motors' Shop-Click-Drive and Chase Auto Direct. I found that while online shopping comes with the benefits one would expect from e-commerce — virtually unlimited information resources and an array of options and choices — the technology backing these websites is fraught with problems, and complicates the already awkward relationship between the salesperson and customer.
Take Carvana, the online upstart that works with dealerships across the country to open up inventories to new audiences. Its 3-D tour of the vehicle, usually the actual car you would buy, helped assauge some of my anxiety over an online purchase.
But even with this digital-first company I ran into annoying problems. The search could be achingly slow at times, its filter would often get stuck loading, and its nationwide reach would deliver me to faraway dealerships. Buying a car in Ohio or Tennessee, not too far from my home in Detroit, seems reasonable. Florida, less so.
Some websites solved this by making it easier to limit the search to vehicles within a certain distance of my ZIP code. Automakers' CPO sites were particularly useful, showing exactly what inventory was nearby.
The second annoying factor most websites shared was pricing a vehicle based on the best possible financing one could get.
Of course, dealers would want to put forward the lowest price, but I found it to be frustrating. As a price-conscious consumer, I would rather spend time — at the beginning — figuring out financing so I know the costs before curating my shopping cart rather than after.
But the real challenge for dealerships, online or off, is figuring out a customer's intent. For this, the online experience offers some promise but ultimately much work is needed on both the tech and human side.
For instance, anyone who has tried shopping online knows that the instant you enter your email, you start receiving emails, calls and texts from salespeople.
The best experience I had was being able to quickly shoot off emails — my preferred method of contact — explaining exactly what I was looking for, and having a real person respond.
One salesperson helpfully explained the CPO process, gave me a list of what the store had on the lot, and told me what parts of the buying process I could and could not do remotely.
But automated services and Internet specialists that many dealers use to handle these leads are either obviously machines, come off as impersonal or can create unnecessarily awkward situations. I experienced this firsthand when one dealership employee accused me of trying to defraud the business.
In retrospect, I could understand why my request seemed suspect. I had only days left on my lease and hadn't yet found my dream vehicle. In a rush to find the perfect car, I went online and reached out to multiple dealerships across the country to learn whether the stores could deliver to me in Detroit, and whether I needed to physically come in to finish the transaction.
Seeing my urgent emails, one salesperson responded: "Time crunch from several states away? Never want to visit the dealership? Want us to ship the vehicle? No thanks. We aren't interested in this type of business. This generally means scam."
I called the salesman's cellphone to tell him that I felt insulted and to explain my situation. After an unproductive conversation, we resumed emailing each other. From there, he understood why I was rushed, apologized, and explained how the dealership — which has a decent business in online sales within its region — has had problems with fraud.
"I should have been more professional and inquisitive rather than accusatory," he wrote. "In my haste, I jumped to conclusions rather than trying to determine your motivation through additional fact finding."
The dealership later explained that it didn't believe in entirely online shopping for this very reason.
I ended up finding a 2015 Mazda3 hatchback — at a higher trim level and cost than I had wanted — through Mazda's CPO site. I signed the papers upon pickup.
After I left the dealership, I received a call from the harried salesperson. In the rush to close the deal, the dealership had forgotten to take my down payment. I was already halfway home, so I wondered, could I complete the payment online?
The answer: Nope. So I dutifully pulled off the highway, turned around, and returned to the dealership. Some things are just easier in person.
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