Back in October, I purchased a new MX-5 Miata from a Mazda dealership in Springfield, MA.  I paid for the car, bought some nice options like an iPod connection, and then gave them a few days to prep it for delivery.  I returned later to find the options were not installed, and someone had stolen my floor mats.  Finally, after some time everything looked in order and drove home, but upon arrival noticed some problems with the car.  First, they installed the iPod connection, but in the process disconnected the heater and A/C controls.  Second, the mats were actually used, and worn through at the driver’s foot area.  I made a few angry calls, fixed the issues myself and decided never to shop there again.

After some thought, I realized that the problem is the same everywhere and with every dealership.  I know that the next time I shop for a car I will probably “settle” for something on the lot, rather than get the car exactly as I wanted.  I will probably pay too much for it because the salesman will either wear me down, or confuse me so I haven’t a clue.  No matter where I go, it will all be the same; even the prestige brands want the most money from you before kicking you out the door. Customer service isn’t the key here, because Saturn had that whole experience planned with the “Stepford Wives” car salesmen, the free mind numbing cookies and the strange photo session of dazed buyers with new cars on the wall.  Saturn is out of business now and most of those customer service experts are unemployed.

No, the problem is that the whole business model of expensive retail outlets is a throwback to the 1950’s.  Nowadays, major brands understand that a presence on the web is more important than a storefront.  The alternative to the dealership model is a cleaner experience from the start, with cars being sold online through websites and the automakers displaying models at direct retail stores like BJ’s Wholesale and Costco.  Automakers need to create a set pricing structure for each car, so that I know what it will cost with the options I want in Boston or in Seattle.  Only a few key people are needed at a store to prep the car, arrange test drives and answer questions.  Of course there are certain details that would have to be worked out, but the concept is very sound.  In fact, China’s Geely is looking into the possibility very seriously and Ford is testing flat rate pricing in the southern US.  Internet sites are also prospering and Car Max was the only automotive group that actually grew during the recent economic downturn.  There is a solution here and all the automakers have to do is encourage change and reward innovation.

Anyone who has ever repeated the line “I’m just looking today” or tried to escape from the clutches of a car salesman knows that there has to be a better way.  Thanks possibly to China, that day may be here soon.

Photos Courtesy of Google Images, – Cartoon courtesy of farside

Article courtesy of Chris Raymond