Monday, February 20, 2012

Coming soon to your town… The Sam Walton of Car Dealers?


Sam Walton reinvented the retail business for just about every product except automobiles. Wal-Marts are now global and they’re both praised and vilified. They’re vilified by the small businesses and/or inefficient businesses they drove out of the market and they’re praised by consumers for their low prices. Sam accomplished what he did by building a retail machine that was more efficient than his competitors. He mastered the science and art of purchasing quality merchandise in volume domestically or abroad and tight inventory control which allowed him to charge the lowest prices. He built a reputation for quality, low price and integrity that is unmatched by any other retailer.

The reason Wal-Mart sells every other product except new cars is because of state franchise laws which protect car dealers from competition like Wal-Mart. In all 50 states, car dealers have been able to lobby their legislators over the years to pass state laws which give them an exclusive market territory. In Florida, for example, a manufacturer may not add another dealer of the same make within a 9 mile radius of the existing dealer. If they attempt to do this, the dealer can appeal this to the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles where a hearing judge makes the decision. The franchise laws also tell the manufacturers who can retail cars. A manufacturer is prohibited from doing so. A car retailer must have a factory franchise agreement. The results of all these archaic laws put a real damper on competition in the retail car business. It allows inefficient car dealers to remain in business and allows the haggling, horse-trading system of purchasing cars that dates back to the 19th century to perpetuate.

Polls of consumers regularly rank their car buying and servicing experiences as among the worst of any other product or service. Car dealers are a consistently ranked in the bottom three of all professions along with lawyers and politicians. If we learned anything from the explosive growth of Wal-Mart, it is that consumers what the best price and a pleasant buying experience. A consumer doesn’t want to go into a retail store, buy a product, and find out the next day that his next door neighbor bought the same car for hundreds or thousands of dollars less from the same store. Yet, this is standard operating procedure for car dealers. The shrewd, educated, sophisticated negotiator can buy a car very close to dealer cost.  The very young, very old, uneducated, naive, or those not schooled at speaking English are likely to pay a lot more for the exact same car from that same dealer.

I have a hunch that Neanderthal car dealers are nearing extinction. The American consumer is getting smarter and more sophisticated every day. This new enlightened consumer won’t put up much longer with the old way of buying cars. If a customer walked into Macy’s and asked the salesman for the price of a Samsung big screen TV and the salesman responded, “How much are you willing to pay?” or “I can’t give you a price unless your willing to buy today.”, that consumer would “scream bloody murder”. But this exact thing happens as standard operating procedure in most car dealerships today.

The American consumer is also the American voter and I have a feeling that we are about to see some new pro-consumer legislation with respect to how cars are sold in America. State franchise laws that help to preserve the status quo will be examined closely. An example of these laws surfaced recently when a startup company, TrueCar.com, offered a new and refreshing way for car buyers to actually find out what the lowest price in their market was. This lasted about a year and TrueCar.com was growing like wildfire.

I wrote two columns about TrueCar.com. The first was entitled “Will TrueCar.com Change the Way You Buy a Car in The 21st Century?” I wrote this before the intense pressure from car dealers, manufacturers, and state legislators caused TrueCar.com to “cave in” and redesign their unique, consumer-friendly lowest price system. My next article was entitled “Online Car Buying Service, TrueCar.com Caves in to Pressure by Auto Industry”.

Somewhere out there is another Sam Walton biding his time and waiting for the tolerance level of the American car buyer to “redline” when it comes to the old way she must buy a car today. I think the founder of TrueCar.com, Scott Painter, could have been that automobile Sam Walton, but he lacked the courage and folded under pressure. The American car buyer is waiting for you, Sam, and just like they did with Wal-Mart, the world will beat a path to your door. 

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