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Nashville Scene The Shocking Truth

Super-sleuthing the super dealers

By Marc Stengel

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  Used-car superstores, while still a novelty for most of us, have become a fact of life for some. And because their early apparent success is scaring the bejeebies out of traditional used-car (and new-car) dealers, the trade paper that auto dealers trust most, Automotive News, recruited journalist Jeff Mortimer as an undercover "mystery shopper."

Mortimer was challenged to get the goods on superstores in Michigan and Texas--five AutoNation USA stores and two CarMax stores--and his findings have appeared in the weekly trade publication under the headline, "Used-car superstores: the shocking truth."

So compelling--and indeed so entertaining--is this summary of his multiple shopping experiences that it should be required reading for anyone contemplating a used-car purchase. In an exclusive interview, Mortimer explained why his sense of "shock" was as unexpected as it was revealing:

"Most customers, I suspect, are rather more like me," Mortimer says. "You know--they buy cars infrequently, and they're usually unprepared. But the person who is selling the car knows all the angles, knows all the tricks of the trade, the book values, and so forth. So there's not a level playing field in terms of information; at least that's the traditional impression most of us have about buying a used car. But in all of my 'shopping' at seven different superstores in two different states, the experiences were far contrary to what I was expecting and accustomed to. It wasn't just the absence of unpleasant feelings, it was the presence of pleasant feelings. Quite simply, it just felt good to go there. It was actually kind of relaxing."

As his story details, the chief feature in common with each of the superstore concepts seems to be the near absence of any pressure on customers to buy cars. Mortimer describes an environment in which shoppers are encouraged to browse at will--and for hours, if they so choose--among an electronic inventory of cars accessible via computer terminals that blanket the showroom. Salespeople remain virtually invisible until shoppers specifically ask for help.

"I guess I'm as computer averse as anybody from my generation," says the 51-year-old Mortimer. "A strange computer to me is like a strange dog; I'm not sure if I want to touch it or not. But I quickly got over that feeling. The systems at each of the superstores I visited are the epitome of user-friendly. The real trick is that you can devise your searches in various ways--by price, by style, by model. You can even search by a specific amount of monthly payment. This way, you can have a significant amount of information before you even speak to anybody. Well, I happen to believe that knowledge is power; and the way these computer systems are set up, AutoNation's in particular, the customer has access to the same information as the seller and can negotiate virtually as an equal."

Mortimer writes that "shopping at these stores was a real through-the-looking-glass experience." Instead of salesmen and saleswomen, there are "sales guides" at AutoNation and "sales consultants" at CarMax. Their roles are all basically the same, however: to assist customers in finding cars they may want to buy; to help secure financing and, in some cases, insurance; and to establish a value for trade-ins. The same person provides assistance throughout the entire process, for as many test drives and walk-arounds and number-crunches as it takes. Since the superstores are strictly no-haggle operations, gone are the pressure-cooker delays while a salesman retreats to his invisible "sales manager" every time the buyer counters a price.

And because most sales guides/consultants/associates are salaried, not commissioned, gone, too, is any sense of regret or guilt whenever the shopper decides to get up and leave.

Perhaps the most thoroughly unconventional element of the superstore concept is the returns policy. As Mortimer observes in his story, it's the warranties that "grab the attention, especially the money-back guarantees" (seven days/300 miles at most AutoNation stores; five days/250 miles at CarMax).

Looking back at an undercover adventure that kept surprising him with good news, Mortimer nevertheless admits, "All along, there was part of me that kept saying, 'Wait 'til I get to the fine print. I can rip the lid off of these guys.' But it turns out there wasn't any lid to rip off--as far as I could tell, at any rate. Actually, the whole experience was a blast. It was even fun to write, which any journalist knows is rarely the case no matter how good the story."

Striking a pensive note for a moment, however, Mortimer ponders the implications of this new breed of retailing that is somehow transforming age-old frustrations of shopping for a used car into a no-muss, no-fuss nirvana: "Okay, sure, my personal experiences as a mystery shopper at these superstores were pleasant. Surprisingly so. But there's also a part of me--let's call it the philosopher part--that says, 'Well, here's one more area of life that's going to be run by huge corporations with identical stores everywhere.' "

For all of their blustery bravado as they strode upon the used-car scene, it's impossible to say that the superstores have been immediately super successful. In a retailing revolution this profound, this extensive, and yet still in its infancy, bigger hasn't necessarily turned out automatically to be better; but as Mortimer's 'secret shopper' adventure suggests, more choices for the consumer--in terms of the sheer number of used cars as well as the manner of shopping for them--promise to put purchasers back in the driver's seat where they belong.

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