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Are Car Dealerships on Their Deathbeds?

by Todd Kasenberg

I may or may not be in the market for a new car.  Certainly, I am pondering the possibility of a purchase, given that my current vehicle is aging, my second vehicle is ancient (and rusting, and ready for the wrecker), and I’m becoming more aware of the impacts of my crossover on the environment and on my wallet.

Recently, I took the drive from my east Kitchener home to the so-called Guelph auto mall.  I drove in to the dealership of interest furthest to the east (Toyota), and proceeded west until I hit the edge of the city.

What I experienced surprised me.

At Guelph Toyota, the salesperson was disinterested.  Was I dressed too casually?  Not her type?  Was it because I asked for options friendly to the environment (and assumptions were made about my willingness to spend, etc.)  I’m not sure.  But I was essentially told that the dealership had no brochures, and that perhaps I should go to the Used Dealership next door to chase my interest in the Prius.  Huh.  As I walked out, I noticed a whiteboard on the wall showing the number of cars sold last month and current month.  As a buyer, that didn’t impress me.

At Nissan/Infinity, I was greeted by a charming receptionist, but no salesperson ever came to speak with my wife and I.  Non-intrusive yes, but not helpful.

I drove through the Buick dealership, and drove back out.  Saw nothing that impressed me, sorry about that Robinson’s.

Next up was Wayne Pitman Ford.  As preface, an uncle of mine worked for Ford; I have fond memories of him, and recall good times driving a Mercury Comet in the early days of driving. It’s safe to say that Ford has a pull on me. So, I pulled in the driveway labeled “Sales/Leasing”, only to find nowhere to park.  I wound up parking at the back – slight annoyance.  Then, as my wife and I got to the building, we hit doors that were locked with signs saying “Next door please ->” – not one, but 4 of them!  When I got in to the showroom, I was on the Service side of the building, and ready to rant.  I let the greeter know, she sympathized, then I let the sales manager know that I wasn’t feeling a whole lot of welcome. His body language was clear – I was a kook.  He found me a sales person, just to get me off his back.  The salesman, after listening to my appeal for something kind on the environment, let me know that there was a lovely Ford Focus, not hybrid, on for a great price, that red one over there.  Very unsatisfying experience.  We left muttering about customer experience.

Contrast this with a pleasant experience at Barry Cullen Chevrolet.  Blake knew his stuff, listened, and wanted to help.  I grade that experience an A, even if I am not yet sure a GM vehicle is my cup of tea.

Next up was Mazda.  After a bit of a wait for a salesperson – they had a busy spell – we met with a well-informed and helpful young sales person who knew his stuff and could talk environment and approaches with me very effectively.  I give him full marks. The dealership could benefit from a bit of a visual makeover, mind you - it had a bit of a sterile feel to it.

Since that windy cold day, I have gone to a few dealerships in Kitchener/Waterloo, including the one that now represents my current vehicle brand, and both of those experiences also manifested borderline disinterest in my business.  In one, the salesman, new to this dealership and brand, spent a lot of time talking about the competitor products he represented not more than a few months earlier. If not fails, those experiences were also pretty darn close. (But they were fails, since they failed to motivate me to consider their options.)

All of this has brought back to mind my buying experience when I purchased a Saturn in 1997.  I had already been around and test drove cars. The folks at Saturn were helpful, informative, but not overly pushy.  I literally called the salesman on the phone, told him I was ready to buy, and asked him how to proceed.  Believe it or not, we carried out all transactions and correspondence by fax!  It was – to borrow the word that I now realize is invaluable – effortless.  I showed up for my appointment to get my car, was given a tutorial on its various features and functions, and off I drove.

I think Saturn had something.  And, given my recent experiences, I need to call on car dealerships to prove that they deserve to be in business in our times.  If, in 1997, I could buy a car by fax, why can/should I not just buy a car online in 2014?  I was pretty disappointed by the customer experience in most of the dealerships I visited, and largely would be happy to dispense with the experiences and them if it’s going to be that shabby.

So – car dealerships – do you deserve to survive in our internet age?  Or shall we re-envision a new approach, where I can see an example of each model at a viewing gallery (like that Hyundai gallery in the Cambridge Shopping Centre), and completely manage my transaction online?  To be blunt, if you can’t convey to me that I’m welcome in your space, then I don’t want to have to avail myself of it, your vehicles and you.

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