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November 20, 2017

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Home » Business » Autotalk Special

Glib car salesmen: meet the new dinosaurs

In a sharp contrast to the industry-wide revolution to eliminate fossil-fueled vehicles, little evolutionary is happening to an equally old living fossil: automotive retailing.

While China’s booming e-commerce puts almost the entire world at the touch of our fingertips, buying a car is still a huge project of legwork and haggling.

Why do we have to put up with all this when we are spoiled by overnight deliveries from our Singles Day shopping spree? For years, I have been told by industry veterans that automotive retailing is not quite as simple as running a grocery store.

“It is exactly you guys who are making a big deal out of it,” I say, teasing my dealership friend Eddie Zhang whenever he complains about high-maintenance customers. “All those slick sales pitches, back-and-forth negotiations, complicated cost packages and the tedious process of delivery.”

The process doesn’t have to be that convoluted. During the recent Singles Day shopping festival, up to 800,000 cars were reportedly ordered on China’s top three automotive online retail platforms. That’s more than a third of total sales last month. Online dealerships have streamlined the whole car-buying process, including the offer of their own financing and trade-in services.

The concept “car vending machine” unveiled by Alibaba earlier this year stunned many with its hassle-free simplicity. It will be officially introduced by the end of the year, putting cars of different brands on a huge vertical shelf for you to just grab and go, like a can of soda.

It would be my dream come true to drive a brand-new car that I fell in love with at first sight on a showroom floor, or to fall in love with a car the moment it showed up at my doorstep as a surprise.

China’s much-vaunted consumerism is producing more easy-going customers than ever before, encouraging the kind of impulsive shopping that was once inconceivable.

Special discounts on Singles Day convinced my family to spontaneously buy a TV online. In the past, such a big-ticket item would have required weeks of research and bargain hunting. My family felt comfortable taking the risk because we can ask for a refund within a week of purchase and even get compensated if any further price cuts occur.

Smarter buyers or not?

Of course, a television set isn’t a car. Buying a vehicle still requires a deal finalized at a dealership, where consumers may once again get hornswoggled by price mazes and inflexible sales policies. No wonder the media is always probing the question: Are online automotive sales surreptitiously skewed if not inflated?

There really are people in this world willing to blindly buy a car. Tesla Model 3 buyers put US$1,000 deposits down on the vehicle more than a year ago, before they ever even saw the car. One year later, due to production hell, many of them are still waiting with their refundable deposits.

My friend Laura is still languishing somewhere in a queue, waiting for her second car. She refused to be coerced into paying more for “express delivery” — a common practice at traditional franchise dealerships, but strange to any new energy vehicle startup that deals directly with customers. What the startups lack in production readiness, they make up for with promises of an exceptional ownership experience.

In the US, Tesla is offering a leasing package with the option to buy the car at the end. It combines a low down payment, monthly payments and an exit clause if the purchaser regrets his decision. A similar offer will be available in China with Volvo’s new Polestar electric car model.

To shop for the first mass-production model of China’s local electric car startup Nio, hard-core fans first need to get “invitation codes,” which are distributed within an exclusive circle to make the deal seem like more of a privilege.

I was once approached by a Nio salesman in a fancy shopping mall, where a pop-up exhibition was set up to display both concept and production vehicles. He didn’t give me any secret code but kindly asked me to sign up for online “fan engagement” to get free souvenirs.

By comparison, most established carmakers maintain more detachment from customers, preferring to exert influence through their ironclad control over dealerships. I have always wondered whether standardized and sometimes robotic services at franchised dealerships rob consumers of the human touch. After all, I may simply go to a car vending machine in the future. It would fulfill my basic needs, just like so many automated, self-help services nowadays that save people money.

I asked my dealership friend Eddie if he ever worried that customers might stop coming to see him in person.

“Maybe I will end up as a door-to-door salesman, coming to your doorstep along with a test-drive car and my charm,” he said, laughing off my concerns. “I could take a customer out for a spin and get myself a deal. It sounds cool, right?”

Traveling all the way to a dealership in the suburbs has lost its former sense of ritual, what with pop-up auto displays everywhere. The Internet is overflowing with product information, and the same trend is coming to after-sales services departments as owners of cars with expired warranties choose nearby, faster repair shops over expensive dealerships.

“I have no doubt you will get to keep your job,” I reassured my friend.

After all, even if brick-and-mortar dealerships decline, solid experience will still be much needed in many instances. That expertise, however, will need to be outstanding. The quality of customer service will be a defining factor in who gets the business and who does not.

I have no doubt that dealerships will survive the Internet age, but perhaps they will have to undergo changes. We may see cafes or restaurants attached to car marketing, personal tours of automotive assembly lines or even design-your-own-car studios.

To my mind, seeing my custom-made car roll off the assembly line would be a shopping experience more thrilling than any flash sale I can get from home.


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