Call me a cheerleader, but several recent developments point toward an
acceleration of Internet commerce. Some things are happening faster than
expected, and other things never expected to occur are already underway.
Take the notion of selling used cars
over the Net. A scant few months ago I ridiculed the idea--buying a
"pre-owned" car is a big enough headache when you can touch and test drive
the vehicle of your choice, then pray you didn't buy a lemon. Who'd trust
such a risky purchase to a medium that the average car buyer certainly
isn't comfortable with?
New cars make sense. Generally it doesn't matter where you buy a vehicle
because they're more or less a standard, if pricey, commodity.
Used cars aren't such a predictable commodity, and the physical world
offers comforting qualities like a fixed location, warranties, Better
Business Bureau watchdogs, state lemon laws--all of which are pretty much
absent on the Net. Your own mechanic can check out a vehicle purchased in town. Besides,
you'll probably want to buy the used vehicle nearby, not half way across
That's what I explained several months ago to someone researching the idea
of used car sales on the Web.
I should have known I was wrong then, just by looking at sites like
Microsoft's CarPoint, but I didn't.
Well, the company I had tried indirectly to dissuade, Consumers Car Club, last week launched
used car sales on the Net. The company, which runs an 800-number phone
service for car buyers, will be followed next month by the relaunch of a
bigger competitor, AutoConnect.
They'll try to inject trust into Net used-car sales by offering mechanic
inspections, extended warranties, detailed histories of a particular
vehicle, and so on.
But will it be enough? Neither company has a recognizable consumer brand
name, although one AutoConnect partner is wholesale auto auctioneer Manheim. That may help AutoConnect with
dealers, but not buyers. Car Club is counting on its marketing deal with
11,000-plus credit unions to serve as a trusted endorser by a common
provider of auto loans.
Trusted brands can be built on the Net--Amazon.com has written the book on that
topic--but it will be harder today with a multitude of competitors and a
hugely expanded universe of Web sites vying for attention.
But the tougher issue will be buyers, such as my wife, who'd never buy a
used car sight unseen. How dark is the interior and does its color work
with the exterior? Do the seats have cigarette burns? How bad is that dent
on the fender?