Buy a Car Off the Internet?

2010 Camaro SS

The other day, I bought a 2010 Camaro SS off the Internet. More specifically, I bought it from Aaron Smith of Motorphilia. They have an interesting business model. But how I got on Aaron’s radar is every bit as interesting a story as the fact that I bought this car, without kicking the tires. And I have some ideas for car dealerships and others who want to understand how a $40,000 product can be sold virtually (oh – and thanks to Aaron Smith’s efforts, I didn’t pay $40K for the car: he found me a great deal).

It Started With a Blog Post

A few weeks back, I wrote a post about how car dealership websites suck. I was frustrated, because I wanted to comparison shop and found that the dealerships within 50 miles of me (and there are many) all had horrible websites with really difficult navigation, and a lack of useful information. Worse still, they weren’t exactly doing much to bring me in for a visit. But I’ll get back to that. First, just realize that I wrote this post.

The post populated on Facebook. Aaron Smith from Motorphilia saw the note in his stream and dropped me a line (FOUR MINUTES AFTER THE POST WENT LIVE). He said, “Hey, saw you were looking for a new Camaro. I found a few you might want to hear about. Interested?”

Lesson #1: The people who LISTEN for business beat the people waiting around for business to find them.

Actually, it Started a Year Before All This

In April 2009, I visited GM headquarters. I got to drive a Cadillac CTS and a CTS-V, but then I got to play with the Camaro RS (the littler engine version of the SS). It wasn’t even out on the market yet. I felt amazingly blessed.

I should put an aside in to say that I’m not much of a car guy, really. Or I wasn’t. I’ve never owned a “cool” car. I’ve owned all (but one) GM cars since I stared driving, though, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to get interested in a Camaro. And why? Because the newer model looks like the Batmobile, and I’m a Batman kinda guy. (Okay, I know someone will say the Corvette is more like the Batmobile, but they’re like an entirely different tribe of people, Vette types, and that’s not my thing.)

But Buying A Car Off the Internet?

I admit that it’s a little weird to buy a car off the Internet. If I hadn’t met Aaron a few times in person (he even gave me a ride around Austin in a Prowler), I might have been a bit less likely to trust a website-based car sale. But, again, when you read Motorphilia’s business model, it feels like they’re the kind of relationship you want to have.

If I didn’t know Aaron, I’d recommend that he put a few pictures of himself and/or his staff on the site. We relate to pictures. In fact, there’s a lot of “we” language on the site, and normally, without any sense of who “we” is, that’s a potential turnoff. However, and here’s the next big lesson:

Lesson: Aaron Smith’s @motorphilia efforts in social media are warm, friendly, and always on.

Aaron and team know the value of social media. He’s active on Facebook, on Twitter, on their blog, and in several other locations, as well. It’s the exact opposite of the mainstream local dealership model. Instead of waiting for people to show up for test drives (and/or sending out flyers and other dead tree products and local commercials), Aaron’s team invests time and effort into human-based connections that they hope to translate into sales.

Trust and Buying Something Sight Unseen

I admit that looking at photos of a car that I intend to buy is like moving into a house that you’ve only seen remotely. It’s spooky. It’s not how things are done. I further admit that I am a bit strange, in that I buy many things off the Internet, so I’m not your typical mainstream buyer. Finally, I will cop to the admission that I knew that if something went wrong, that I’d raise holy hell about it, and that felt like a great insurance policy. But since I dared to do it, I can vouch for the service.

It Requires a Bit of Awareness and Conviction

I already knew that I wanted a Camaro. I already knew the rough price of the car I wanted. I knew that I didn’t want to haggle (my last five cars were Saturns because they sales method is: ‘here’s the price, no matter who you are.’ And all of this really suited the buying scenario of an online purchase. There may or may not have been negotiating room in the price, but I’ve got to be honest: Aaron found me a car that was $4500 less expensive than the three I’d found within 20 miles from my house (and the one he found me had tons fewer miles – only 1100).

If you needed lots of test drives, or if you wanted to really negotiate and do a lot of hand-holding and tire-kicking, then online obviously wouldn’t be a good fit. Also, I can’t advocate taking up a dealership’s time on test driving, only to buy somewhere else. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do.

What Does This Say for Dealerships, Though?

Local car dealerships find themselves in a potential bind. What used to be a sure thing is now far from it. Many car manufacturers had to thin out their dealership relationships over the last few years. Local print and TV media have been decimated making it harder to get a local dealership’s ads seen. Location and proximity help keep some customers at hand, but it clearly didn’t work for me. Will the rest of the Netflix generation feel that way, too?

And if local dealerships keep avoiding the social web, how many more buyers like me will they miss?

Since writing the first post over a month ago, I never once heard from a dealership within 100 miles of me. I heard from one other online dealership, but that’s it. So, no one from the local world claimed my $40,000. It went to Texas.

Obviously, we won’t all just buy on the net. We won’t all forego test drives. We wont have such an affinity for a product that we’ll buy it without a lot of comparison shopping. But there are signals here to consider, and there are opportunities to grow. What follows are a few potential takeaways, and then a couple of videos I shot with thoughts about the car.

Takeaways for Car Dealerships

New 2010 Camaro SS

  • Make your sites more mobile-friendly. Flash doesn’t cut it in the smartphone era.
  • Add listening tools to your marketing efforts.
  • Have a social presence, so you can respond and invite in potential buyers.
  • Work with the manufacturers’ social media people, like Christopher Barger at GM and Scott Monty at Ford (and your manufacturers of choice).
  • Look for alternatives to the current business models, as sales won’t rush up on gimmicks and discounts alone.
  • Consider the after-sale. I just bought a Camaro SS. Do you doubt that I’m prime for aftermarket and/or related offers? Heck, I couldn’t even find my tripometer reset until this afternoon. I’d be a perfect candidate to build a deeper relationship with, and you’d have a sales funnel extension.
  • Equip your buyers with social extenders. People don’t buy cars fast enough for you to build a single relationship. Seek the referral, and the share. Not one local dealership had a Facebook Like button next to each make/model.

The rest, I’ll let you figure out. Or, you can work with me. I might even have some experience in this field. : )

Now, the Videos

I’ve never been much of a car person. I’m not one for spending lots of money. I’m definitely not one for spending money on myself (unless it’s for business materials). I bought the car because I won’t benefit from a cool car when I’m 70. I bought it because I haven’t really celebrated my last several years’ hard work in any tangible way. I bought it because I wanted my own Batmobile. Here are a few videos related to the experience:

On buying a car through Motorphilia:
(apologies for my hair. It was still wet.)

My first night drive in the Camaro:

Thoughts on Buying a 2010 Chevy Camaro SS:

Thanks for indulging me. It was quite an experience, and I’ve been dying to tell the story, but had to wait until the car arrived, and/or until all the bits lined up. I haven’t ever had a second car for my family, so this will also open up some opportunities in logistics. And hey, it’s a darned fun car to drive.

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  • http://marketingmorsels.com Debbie Benstein

    Loved this post.

    I’ve long taught my clients that offline and online marketing are not two separate beasts. Each can, and should, inform and extend the effectiveness of the other. Combining the two together, and ensuring that each feeds the other is what makes good marketing, great.

  • http://www.mikeslife.org Mike CJ

    Nice post, and enjoy that “new car” feeling. I have to wait until later in the year for my next new one. But it’s good to sense your excitement. Even after years in the motor industry, when I had a new car every nine weeks, I still get crazy when I know a new one is coming, often not sleeping the night before.

    One of my life’s missions is to help drag the motor industry here in Europe kicking and screaming into the social media age. It’s a tough one!

  • http://www.mikeslife.org Mike CJ

    Nice post, and enjoy that “new car” feeling. I have to wait until later in the year for my next new one. But it’s good to sense your excitement. Even after years in the motor industry, when I had a new car every nine weeks, I still get crazy when I know a new one is coming, often not sleeping the night before.

    One of my life’s missions is to help drag the motor industry here in Europe kicking and screaming into the social media age. It’s a tough one!

  • http://carlnatale.com Carl Natale

    There’s a lot of good stuff in your post Chris. What stands out to me is that you had a relationship with Aaron. He took the time to gain your trust – almost like he read Trust Agents.

    There is one more caution for car dealers. If Motorphilla’s customers are scared to buy a car off the Internet with out test driving, they will go to a local dealer to actually kick the tires. (Despite your feelings about doing that) Dealerships will then become showrooms for Motorphilla.

    I bet dealerships address the issue by charging consumers for test drives instead of following your advice.

    What gets me is that Aaron didn’t do anything really different from what car salesmen always have done. It’s just that they do it within the borders of the dealership lot. These tools allow them to do it beyond the lot. That’s an opportunity not problem.

    Thanks for letting me ramble. It’s a really thought provoking post.

  • http://twitter.com/seanmlyden Sean M. Lyden

    Chris-

    Thank you for this post. I am forwarding to folks in my auto dealer network. I spent several years on the dealer side in the industry and long advocated change in their marketing practices. I’m hoping a post like yours will help spur change — even if it’s just one dealer at a time. The key is that dealers need to focus on building trust-filled relationships with prospects and clients. Earlier this year, I wrote a post along these lines on What if Auto Dealers Advertised to Build Trust http://ow.ly/2ti4l.

  • http://www.jeffpersch.com Anonymous

    I wouldn’t have a problem with purchasing a car through the internet, and I think it is a real easy fix for car dealerships to get into the game.

    I think the biggest problem with internet purchases of cars is the question of financing. Every study I have seen show that around 70% of cars purchased are done so with financing. I don’t think that will change, and unless you purchase with cash I don’t see the purchase moving online for a long time.

    Does the beginning of the transaction start on the internet and does that play an important role? Yes. That is why their presence needs to be improved.

  • http://andydolph.com Andy Dolph

    First – congratulations on your Batmobile!
    Second, it seems like it really comes back to all business is about relationships and trust, and the tech world is just making that more important – like turning up the volume on it because there are so many choices….

  • http://dbthomas.com/blog David B. Thomas

    I hope dealerships pay attention. I once had a potential car buying experience that ended with me standing up in the salesman’s office and saying, “All I want to do is leave. Tell me where my car keys are!” But that’s another story.

    Here’s another take on the issue of going to a dealership solely to test drive a car you plan to buy online: That’s the dealers chance to change your mind and convince you to buy it from them. In fact, I think it would be fine to walk in and say, “I’m thinking of buying a car over the Internet and I want to test drive yours first.” A smart salesperson would see that as the most qualified of leads.

    • http://www.motorphilia.com motorphilia

      One of our core beliefs is that we are here to help people make good decisions and give them the information they need to to this . . . we’re in the business of making educated and confident clients and there is no spin here. We have no commitment to any one brand or any one car. What we offer are choices and we help people focus on one based on what they want and on what makes them happy and then we save them time, money, and hassles when it’s time to pull the trigger. . . . if you would like to know more about MOTORPHILIA, please visit: http://www.motorphilia.com

  • http://blog.jeffharbert.com/ Jeff Harbert

    What a great example of taking a traditional business and giving it an internet edge. That you never heard from a single dealer in your area speaks to not only the need for businesses to innovate but that there’s tons of marketing and customer service gold to be mined in businesses that don’t use the internet effectively.

  • http://twitter.com/ItsSupergreen SUPERGREEN

    A few years ago I purchased my 03 4Runner off the net from a guy in NJ (I’m from SC). Like you, I knew exactly what I wanted, so it was just a matter of checking his and the car’s bgrounds. Still driving that it and will likely purchase my next one the same way. Congrats on the Camaro, that’s one bad ass ride!

  • http://twitter.com/CherylHarrison Cheryl Harrison

    Love the new car – congrats :)

  • Bjorn Elmberg

    The times they are a-changing.
    According to Cap Gemini’s global “Cars Online” report, 40% of consumers would like to buy a car over the Internet. http://www.us.capgemini.com/carsonline/.

  • Judy Martin

    Chris, Thanks for the info. Taking mom car shopping and I’m sending her this link before we head out the door. It’s such a trip.

  • http://twitter.com/smartstartcoach Linda M. Lopeke

    Chris,

    I really enjoyed reading about your car buying experience at Motorphilia! Awesome to see so many positives come together to create a great outcome for all. And yes, I do know how hard you worked to earn this car. I trust you’ll share many happy (safe) miles together on the road ahead.

    PS Your hair didn’t look all that bad wet. ;o

  • http://www.pjmullen.com/ PJ Mullen

    Back during the mortgage boom market I was managing a team of 25 loan officers who would regularly buy cars off the internet. It seemed like every other week for a few months one of my 20 something charges would be accepting delivery of a Porsche or a Viper that they bought off of ebaymotors. All of them had really good experiences and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a car online.

    My brother used to work at a VW dealership near where we live as a tech. One time I brought my wife’s car in for service and had a chat with one of the sales managers about why they didn’t use social media more or break from the cookie cutter dealership website mold. Rather than engage in a conversation about it, he just said it was too much work and not worth their time. I laugh whenever I hear their stupid radio commericals (on the rare occasion I’m actually listening to the radio) because they are so bad they would actually prevent me from ever doing business with them.

    Congrats on the new ride. You have worked hard and do deserve something as fun as that. I hadn’t really pondered the Batmobile angle before, but I totally see it.

  • Amy

    Chris! First, this post is soooo rich because it can go in so many different directions. I love the idea of you portraying yourself as a Batman kind of guy! Surely, no one would mistake you as Robin!

    More importantly, buying a car online is kind of like online dating. It seems bizarre, unless of course you’ve done it…and then it seems like a no-brainer. Online is just where the relationship starts. Where it ends depends on where you want to take it after you have made that connection..

    Congratulations on your new wheels. May they take you on many fun, safe adventures.

    Amy Parmenter
    http://www.parmfarm.com

  • http://karate-kids.com.au Sensei Matt Klein

    Disappointed Chris, I wanted to hear that V8 rumble on your night drive. Had a 1970 Camaro 350 back in ’77 and it was a blast. Wow, 428 hp, do you like the performance? Sounds like this guy that sold it to you was wired in and it paid off. Yes, you truly earned it, but that does not make me any less jealous.

  • http://twitter.com/carrieactually Carrie

    i hate car shopping and i’m hoping to be able to buy my next car online. all i want to have to do is be able to compare a few sites for the best price, pay, and have it delivered to my driveway.

    • http://www.motorphilia.com motorphilia

      Hey Carrie . . . if you would like to know more about how we work, please check out http://www.motorphilia.com and feel free to ask me anything . . . we’re here for you :)

  • http://ariwriter.com Ari Herzog

    If you wanted to purchase tomatoes and a California company contacted you with instructions how to buy from them, despite a farm located 15 minutes from you that you never knew about because they don’t actively market themselves, you’d buy from the out-of-state firm — for the same reason you bought your car from Texas and not Massachusetts.

    I’m torn here, Chris, because in a single action you tossed the entire Buy Local movement down the drain in the name of web marketing and engagement.

  • http://twitter.com/MimiMeredith Mimi Meredith

    I’m so happy for you! I think both the story and the lessons of social media business benefits are great, but my favorite thing is that this is your family’s first second car. I love it when famous people like Chris Brogan can be models of delayed gratification…how refreshing! Thanks for sharing your delight.

  • http://twitter.com/mattshawblog Matt Shaw

    Would Captain America drive a Mustang, then?

  • http://blog.andrewkinnear.com andrewkinnear

    “Takeaway for Dealerships: Make your site more mobile friendly. ”

    True that! Everyone who sells something should make their sites mobile-friendly. I’m in the car, I’m at the mall, I want the info, I’m using my smartphone. Great post Chris!

  • http://uptownuncorked.com geechee_girl

    I enjoyed the post but am mainly swinging by comments to say “nice ride!”

  • Anonymous

    We’ve also (sort of) bought our last two cars online. It’s worth saying that no one gets the customer relationship like Mini- we special ordered the car to spec online when the first dealership opened in our area, and it was a great experience. After the sale, we got the occasional surprise package from Mini with a coffee cup or a pen or something else fun and out of the blue, which helped us feel a part of a culture, part of a family, and generally surprised and fuzzy about our little fun car.
    The last purchase of my Highlander was done by talking to our local dealer, deciding on a model, but finding I could get a better deal and get the car faster from a competitor a bit farther away, negotiating solely based upon online references, through email, and never meeting my salesman until the car came in- I even left a deposit over the phone.
    Before I made the deposit and placed the order, I went back to my local dealer, who said they couldn’t do the same, so go with the other guy, making me feel at least a little better about going to a competitor. However, I still get most of my service by my local dealership, and felt like we maintained a good relationship even though the car wasn’t bought there.
    Cars are big purchases. Relationships with your customers matter, not only for the sale, but for the money to be made in service, and frankly, for what they tell their friends and family.

    The number of dealers who don’t know what it said about them on online channels like google local, edmonds.com and cars.com is striking- one local dealership here has a review calling them “Satan Ford” from a few years ago, something that could be overcome if they asked customers to leave reviews about them online to push this one down to the bottom. But that also requires the confidence that your customers are happy, and that requires making sure you are doing business in a way that makes you proud every day- then you never have to really worry about a bad review. That’s the true challenge everyone faces, especially car dealers.

  • http://djcoffman.com/blog Djcoffman

    Awesome ride Chris! We love our 2010 Camaro as well! It’s so high tech! You’ll love the email diagnostics that tell you when you need an oil change or service too! Now you need a batcave!

  • http://rafaelmarquez.me/ Rafael Marquez

    I bought my E320 from eBay. I had a friend drive me the 100 miles to pick up the car. I don’t see what the big deal is. I met my GF on MySpace years ago, so why wouldn’t I buy a car from eBay?

  • http://twitter.com/Matt_Murray Matt Murray

    Hey Chris thanks for sharing your experience here. Most interesting to me is that you were not contacted by a local dealership, that none of them were “listening”. There is a pretty steep learning curve in the automotive digital marketing space, posts like this will raise awareness of the importance of adapting to the new rules of marketing and adopting the tools needed to get the job done. Thanks! In case you are interested, here’s a link to a story where a dealer WAS listening… pretty cool: http://www.dealer.com/blog/twitter-an-automotive-success-story/

  • http://twitter.com/kyleplacy Kyle Lacy

    Listening tools…so important in marketing. We talk so much we forget to listen! Side note nice ride!

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

    I think you’re right that for some, it’s not a big deal. For LOTS of people, it’s a very different paradigm.

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  • http://www.motorphilia.com motorphilia

    It’s a whole new paradigm . . . a local company in your area can now sell to people in other areas as well . It goes both ways. The goal is to streamline an outed dated business model and make it easier for all people to buy cars. To make an appeal that because a business is local and one should buy from it based on this reason is poor.

  • http://twitter.com/frankmireault François R. Mireault

    I like the way you include appropriate and unique visual content to your recent blog posts. You write articles, not just posts, and that’s what makes me come back every morning.

  • http://carlnatale.com Carl Natale

    I’m sorry but I have a problem with this. Local is not an entitlement. You do not deserve customers simply because they live nearby. You still have to provide value and solve the customer’s problems better than the competition.

    A Camaro is not a tomato. There is a good case to be made for the value of locally grown produce. It’s usually a better product. But a Camaro is a Camaro wherever you buy it.

    So you have to deliver better service if you want to sell it locally. Ignoring potential customers does not qualify.

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

    Merci, ami. I do my best.

  • http://mansmanifesto.com Owen Marcus

    Chris,

    I don’t know what looks better – you new car or you in it.

    I hope the car companies and their dealers are reading this post. I have bought and sold cars via the web for over 10 years. It has always worked. I even sold a Triumph Thunderbird to a fellow from WY with one hand. Yes, one hand.

    Owen

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

    Who said Buy Local was a god-given right? I sure as shit won’t spend money with a community who doesn’t want to make it easy to do business.

    I love local, but they have to earn it. It’s not a right.

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

    That’s awesome, Owen. Glad to hear it. You veteran. : )

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

    I think you’re spot on.

  • http://www.danieldecker.net Daniel Decker

    The only thing that might make that car any cooler is if it had a red light scrolling back and forth across the front and you had a watch that allowed you to talk to it (KIT).

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  • http://zaneology.com zaneology

    Hey Chris! I’m so glad you discovered Aaron/Motorphilia – he is the AWESOME guy that bought a car at auction here in Dallas and left it for me to drive to Austin for SXSW ’10….just because I asked/offered/came up with a one-way idea for me to get to Austin, b/c I already had a one-way flight home on SWA…

    He is a jewel. He pays attention, he takes care of the community that WILL BE HIS in the future and he will always give you a good honest deal….as you know… :)

    When I get around to getting my Mercedes G-Wagen, I’m getting it with Motorphilia.

    xo to you and Aaron.

  • http://twitter.com/koreyb Korey Bachelder

    Great to see an opinion from outside the automotive industry. Nearly 50% of business now comes from the web for my family owned car dealerships. Franchise and used car dealers need to pay attention to the tools and ideas mentioned in this blog. Nice work Chris and a good looking car!

  • Mack Collier

    Kudos to you for busting your ass and getting your well-deserved Batmobile. Rock on.

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  • http://raulcolon.net Raul Colon

    Chris,
    If only Aaron/Motorphilia could ship cars to Puerto Rico. I did not catch your previous post but I wrote one on the only dealership in Puerto Rico who has a decent business model. Although there online presence needs a lot of help at least in their physical location they do a great job in caring for you.

    I think that your comments on the Eggo and the huge profits are hitting the nail on the head.

    We hare a huge issue on the Island since we really can’t shop around to other locations. I have car shopped in the New England area and if you take the worst car salesman and multiply it by 10 you will bump into the average car salesman on the island.

    I will mention this and your previous post and share it with a few friends who are actually trying to get some dealerships to move to another approach at selling cars.

    I can identify myself clearly because I am currently looking for a car and it has been a clear headache.

  • http://herbal-nutrition-solutions.com Karter4

    Chris, I’m Tim and would like to say thank you for buying American, from all of Motown my home town. What’s different here is a lot of people say “I bought my car online” I did 5 years ago.So congrats on your decision to go GM.

  • http://www.expatwomen.com Andrea Martins, ExpatWomen.com

    Hi Chris & Congrats on your groovy new car!

    One tip for anyone buying a new car online when abroad though: Some manufacturers make the same model “differently” for different regions of the world. We got stung buying a car for our arrival in Australia, after test-driving in North America. Same car. Same model on the label. Different completely. One was a tall people-mover. One was a low people-mover. Couldn’t tell that by the angle of the online photos! Buyers beware. Best wishes, Andrea.

  • http://www.twitter.com/aainslie Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)

    In Japan car dealers take the approach that “the relationship begins when the sale is made”.

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

    Oh strange! I didn’t know. Thanks for sharing that. : )

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