Scott Sturgis’ Driver’s Seat: Technology puts consumers in charge on dealership lot

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It doesn’t matter if you’re shopping for your first car like soon-to-be graduate student Sturgis Kid 1.0 or for your 16th like Mr. Driver’s Seat, the world of car buying has changed in the last half-dozen years.

As the average age of traded-in vehicles keeps creeping up (from 5.4 years in 2005 in Pennsylvania to 6.6 this year, according to Edmunds.com), shoppers usually find themselves away from the game for a while, so they may be unaware of how much help is available.

There’s an app for that: Those iPhones and Samsung S5s that are all the rage in the Sturgis household do more than play Angry Birds or send Tweets; they allow buyers to see just how good a deal they’re getting on the dealer’s lot.

But what if you’re like me, clinging mightily to your dumb phone? (Well, clinging mightily until just this week, that is. The sudden death of my flip phone finally led me into the iWorld.) Or maybe you don’t even have a cell phone.

One company is offering something for the tech-savvy — and the not-so-savvy as well.

Edmunds.com offers Live Advice, a service where new-car buyers can text their ZIP code and a photo of a window sticker to hear from an expert what the average price is being paid for a car like that in their market. No biggie there; plenty of people use their smartphones to access the Internet and compare prices at other dealers, or through sites like KBB.com or Cars.com.

But Live Advice goes a step further. Edmunds has a team of eight workers at its Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific time (noon to 8 p.m. in the Pittsburgh region).

The Live Advice line started about two years ago but still is “kind of in the pilot phase,” according to Mark Holthoff, director of community and customer support at Edmunds. (It gets a big reveal next month during Edmunds’ Car Week.)

Consumers can access the agents through the website, live chat, email or even over the phone, and can ask questions about price, dealer fees and other items to navigate the car-buying experience with an expert helping them.

“We’re just trying to be everywhere our customers are and let them talk to us how they want to talk to us,” Mr. Holthoff said.

The company has fielded about 3,000 calls a month since the Live Advice lines were set up, and about 40 percent of those have focused on buying, trading and selling cars. (Edmunds also answers questions on repairs and offers other automotive information as well.)

When the Live Advice program began, all 500 or so Edmunds employees were staffing the line voluntarily. Mr. Holthoff said this allowed consumers to get good information, while giving everyone on staff the chance to interact with users of the site.

But even since the full-timers have started in the Live Advice department, they continue to be supplemented by the rest of the staff. And the customer-service agents are not like run-of-the-mill phonebots at, say, the insurance company.

“They’re just car geeks like the rest of us at Edmunds,” Mr. Holthoff said.

They sure are. Edmunds sent me a PDF of an email conversation, and here’s what the agent told the customer, who currently owned a Subaru Outback and wanted something different. When she mentioned her priorities, it became clear she was a candidate for another Subaru, this time a Crosstrek.

“The Subaru really is the best choice for you, hands-down. And you’re right; there are two models. I would have mentioned the Hybrid, except we don’t recommend the Hybrid.

We recently did a first drive of the Crosstrek Hybrid, and it highlighted what I’ve been thinking. (He quotes from the article) … ‘While the hybrid is good in some cases, it is better executed in some vehicles than in others.’ ”

That’s the kind of advice Mr. Driver’s Seat himself gives when readers email; I only wish I could employ a staff of eight to help.

Browsing the dealer? How quaint: Beyond Live Advice and apps, how else can people use technology to improve their car-buying experience?

While I’ve kicked around replacing the aging, dinged-up (thanks, Sturgis Kids) 2004 Mazda MPV that’s bringing down the neighborhood property values, I checked out AAA for some answers.

There, it was possible to use their AAA Auto Buying Program to pick out everything I wanted in a minivan, get a price and have it sent to a local dealership.

I confess, I stopped short of buying, so I never got to see the next step of the experience — did the dealer have what they said they would?

Teresa Thomas, director of public affairs for AAA East Central, said the program is offered nationally to AAA members through a partnership with True Car.

A whole new world: Whether online or on a smartphone or tablet, all the underlying information has been a boon to the consumer. Pricing information that used to be locked inside the couple-hundred-dollar-a-year Kelley Blue Book publications is now available from a variety of sources.

What has all this technology meant for dealers? More work for less reward, according to Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting in Andover, N.J.

“They hated it. All the mystery went out of so much of the car-buying process,” Mr. Phillippi said.

What looked like big discounts a generation ago can be difficult to find today, but they were a result of obscure pricing information.

“There’s a real pitched battle between the consumer and dealer, and dealer and the factory,” Mr. Phillippi said.


Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at mrdriversseat@gmail.com

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