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Surprise drives into Net territory

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.

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 the continent.

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?