A major sticking point in traditional car buying is the trade-in process, which many car dealers see as an opportunity to grab extra profit. AutoNation Direct says it provides a price for a buyer's trade-in based on the owner's description, but without a physical inspection. The company determines the value by consulting pricing guides, including Edmunds' True Market Value (TMV®) pricing, auto auction data and pricing from the buyer's local market. (AutoNation has had an ongoing business relationship with Edmunds.com in which the organizations exchange information about new and used vehicle pricing.)
Once the trade-in price, purchase price and financing are set, buyers can conclude the deal with an in-store concierge at the dealership or take possession of the car at their home or office. Paperwork, even at a dealership, usually takes only 45 minutes, Smith says. That's less than the 1-2 hours it often takes at a dealership.
The non-commissioned in-store concierge does offer extra products, such as extended warranties, but they're not aggressively pushed as they might be by a finance and insurance manager, Smith says. Furthermore, each car is sold with the following guarantee, found on the AutoNation Direct Web site: "No questions asked, three-day or 150-mile money-back guarantee on any new or certified used vehicle. No restocking fee. No exchange policy. No games." At most other dealerships, no such guarantee exists.
It's important to understand that AutoNation Direct isn't trying to distinguish itself by offering the very lowest price, Smith says. Instead, it offers competitive upfront pricing, which reflects Edmunds TMV and the local market. The main benefit is what Smith calls a "protected buying experience," one that is free from the pressure of negotiating with a salesman and then being pressured to buy additional products and services by the commission-motivated finance and insurance manager.
If paying $200 more for a car means freedom from haggling, pressure or hassle, "most customers are OK with that," Smith says. He says his customers like the upfront, non-negotiated pricing offered by AutoNation Direct, rather than the typical process of spending an hour sitting in a cramped sales office just to get a price quote on a car.
Frey points out that many consumers don't have the depth of knowledge to know what constitutes a fair price, since it's a figure complicated by incentives, holdbacks and financing rates. "There are a lot of moving pieces to this business," he says. "The better deal you think you got, the more suspect I am that there was something somewhere that you didn't catch."
One new-car shopper who decided to give AutoNation Direct a spin is Rachel Tabacnic, a 27-year-old account coordinator at Fish Consulting in Hollywood, Florida. "I'm a very busy person and they were able to get in touch with me when I was able to talk," she says. "Besides, this was the first time I bought a car and didn't know what I was doing."
Tabacnic gave the AutoNation Direct car consultant her budget, desired car color, features and information about her trade-in. The company's offer for her trade-in was $1,000 more than she'd been offered by other dealers. She describes her relationship with her consultant as being like "an older brother or my dad helping me with the decision." Tabacnic signed the paperwork for her new 2010 Toyota Corolla in the dealership in under 45 minutes. Two other customers Edmunds contacted also were overjoyed with their AutoNation Direct experience.
But another shopper, Fred Collins, a sales representative for a sheet metal fabricator from Odessa, Florida, thought the service fell short. He contacted AutoNation Direct and got two quotes for a 2011 Hyundai Sonata and a price for his trade-in. One quote was well below Edmunds TMV but the other offer didn't reflect a discount. Collins was able to find a similarly configured Sonata at another dealership and got a better price for his trade-in.
After Edmunds brought the matter to AutoNation Direct's attention, Simon looked into Collins' deal and reported that the company had made a mistake. A discount was available on the second car, but the AutoNation Direct consultant had misread paperwork and presented the wrong price to Collins. Simon says the company wants to improve its processes as it grows, and the lapse was "a perfect training opportunity for us."
The slip also shows how important it is for consumers to be vigilant about verifying pricing by checking guides such as TMV or getting bids from competing dealerships — no matter where they're shopping or how consumer-friendly the seller is.