When I bought my first car, in 1987, I don’t think computers were involved in any way. I bought another one in 1991, and may have done some research on CompuServe–I don’t recall. By 1996, I used a couple of snazzy CD-ROMs to help me pick a ride. And in 2004, I did most of my research online and got a decent price on the car I still own by taking advantage of an exciting “Internet Price” that turned out to be an assistant calling me on the phone with an offer in response to a form I’d filled out.
Basically, though, the Internet still hasn’t had as much impact on the complex (and sometimes tortuous) process of buying an automobile as it has on most other forms of commerce. But a new site called CarWoo aims to leverage the Web to get buyers what they really want: a low price with as little time as possible spent haggling in dealer showrooms.
CarWoo isn’t a research site–it wants shoppers to show up once they already know what model they want to buy and are deciding where to get it. The site provides an auction service that lets multiple dealers bid for your business once you’re ready to pull the trigger. You can either specify the exact model, trim level, and accessories you want, or leave things a bit more flexible in search of the best price. The process is anonymous, helping ward off aggressive salespeople. (When I bought my last car, I got calls from random dealers for weeks afterwards.)
When I heard about the service, I assumed that the company would make money by collecting a fee from dealers. Nope–you pay up-front to use it, whether or not you end up buying a vehicle. A $19 Basic version gets bids from 2-3 dealers; the $49 Plus one opens bidding up to 3-5 dealers, theoretically allowing for a bidding frenzy that might drive the price you pay down further. If you choose to buy from one of the bidding sellers, you can print out a certificate, take it down to the dealer, and pay without further negotiations.
I’ll be curious to see if that business model works–if the idea is all it’s cracked up to be, paying $49 could pay off big, both in the price you pay and the time you save. But consumers will have to have some faith in the concept to whip out their credit cards. (There is a money-back guarantee.)
CarWoo isn’t the first company that’s tried to use the Web to get car buyers great prices, but its predecessors haven’t been huge successes. (Back in 2004, I flirted with buying a car through CarsDirect–but its price wasn’t as good as the one I got through more traditional, painful techniques.) A CarWoo founder told me that car dealers tend not to be the most tech-savvy businesses on the planet, so it’s only just now that a service like this makes sense.
I still love my 2004 Mazda3, so I may not use CarWoo or any other car site for quite a while–but when I’m ready to buy again, I’m looking forward to seeing just how much car buying has changed for the better.