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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 15:57 GMT
Buying cars on the web

By BBC News Online's Orla Ryan

Buying cars on the web may not be the bargain it was thought to be.

About a year ago, when the dot.com boom was at its height, it was largely predicted that consumers would bid farewell to their local dealership and buy cars online.

Online car retailers offer to import cars with UK specifications at European prices - a slap in the face to the manufacturers who have long overcharged consumers.

But the process is slow and some consumers are finding they can get better deals locally.

Waiting for a car

Last Spring, Damian Schogger considered buying a car online, motivated by news reports of cheaper cars for sale in Europe.

"From initial investigation, this proved to be very true," he said. "It was 2,000 to 3,000 cheaper to import from abroad."


Will the internet replace car dealers? I think the answer to that is no.

Ford spokesman
But ultimately, he was deterred by the long waiting period, with many online retailers promising delivery in five to six months time.

"If you know you want to buy a car in a years time, the web is probably a good tool to use," he said.

Apart from the delay, he found he was not necessarily able to get the exact car he wanted.

For example, while UK versions of a car might offer air conditioning, some European versions only had a sun roof.

But he used his research from the web as a bargaining tool to get a cheaper deal from a local dealership.

Playing two dealers against each other and playing both against the cheaper prices offered on the web, he walked off with a "considerable discount".

Carbusters

Money was also the motivation for BBC News Online's Martin Hutchinson when he turned to the web to buy a car.

He found it was 3,000 cheaper to import a car via the web than to buy it in the UK.

He started looking for a car in January last year, then ordered one online through carbusters.com, the Consumers Association site, which put him in touch with an importer on the continent.

The original plan was that the car would be delivered in between eight and 12 weeks.


If you know you want to buy a car in a year's time, the web is a good tool to use

Damian Schogger
This timeframe slipped and with it Martin's hopes of taking a holiday in his new car to the South of France.

In the end, it took seven months to get the car.

"I was pestering them on the phone and by email... You got the impression they didn't know what they were doing," he said.

At the same time, Martin's own car, which he hoped to sell privately, was devaluing.

The new car was only delivered in November. By then, following the Competition Commission's report into the car market and the resultant fall in car prices, the online advantage had all but disappeared.

Web sellers

A mix of companies sell cars on the web.

Some offer to sell UK cars, others to import cars at European prices and some manufacturers offer to sell their cars online.

One of the most high profile sites is Jamjar, whose name it claims is cockney rhyming slang for car.

Launched in July last year, it claims to sell over 500 cars a month, with special-offer cars delivered within 14 days, UK cars within 25 days, and import models within four to six months.

"The only cars we don't sell are hearses," says Justin Skinner, e-commerce manager at Jamjar.com.

While jamjar.com offers discounts, he advises customers to shop around and admits that better bargains can sometimes be found by going to your local dealership.

"Based on the fact that most dealerships are franchised dealerships, it stands to reason that manufacturer will look after them," he said.

Citing a recent survey, which found that 68% of people don't like arguing over prices, he points out that "if you don't like haggling, you can get significantly reduced car prices delivered to your door."

Car manufacturer Ford started selling its cars online last October.

The company declined to offer sales figures, but a spokesman said:"We always knew it would be a slow starter... It is a very small percentage of our car sales."

But for manufacturers such as Ford, selling cars online can provide them with customer information they do not get from dealerships.

Caution

Like many dot.com consumer companies, online car retailers are now far more cautious about the potential size of their market.

"The opinion of the market has changed. When online car retailing first started, everyone said that is it, that is the end of the dealers," a spokesman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said.

"I think now that people are looking at the internet and the car market as more of a supplement to a franchise dealer, it is a good research tool."

"Will the internet replace car dealers? I think the answer to that is no," the Ford spokesman said.

With UK car prices gradually falling into line with European prices, what happens next depends on the car manufacturers.

Jamjar.com's Justin Skinner believes that while most manufacturers think there is a future in selling cars over the web, "they are not allowing independent car retailers to drive the market".

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See also:

20 Aug 00 | Business
Car buyers shun Britain
12 Jun 00 | Business
Car price shake-up unveiled
12 May 00 | Business
Analysis: Europe's car industry
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