Cap'n Arbyte's



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To Automakers

Dear Corporate Behemoth,

I just bought a new car. My first new car. The process was a lot more time-consuming than I originally expected. In fact, I spent much more time thinking about my car purchase than my house purchase! It's within your power to improve this, and it will be profitable to do so.

Part of the trouble was the sheer number of vehicles I was considering. The tools I used (Yahoo!, Edmunds) let me search by vehicle type and price, but what I really wanted to do was search by features. For example, specifying that I'm only interested in vehicles offering telematics systems, or that offer side-impact airbags, or both.

Without this capability, I had to look through the details in order to eliminate vehicles. I decided what information I wanted to collect about the vehicles, then used the Edmunds vehicle comparison tool to examine five at a time.

Five at a time is a silly limitation. My font size and screen resolution would have allowed many more, and if necessary I'd be willing to use the horizontal scrollbar. But more than this limitation, I had problems with the way the information was reported. The tool tried to optimize by sometimes omitting fields when all the compared vehicles had the same value. I understand the purpose; the tool is intended to show differences, not similarities. But that's not what I wanted — I was trying to gather raw data. My workaround was to always include a very full-featured car in the lineup so I could expose some of the otherwise-hidden fields, but this reduced my comparison to four at a time.

A more severe problem was the lack of definitions for the fields. The results listed "head air bag" and "side air bag" separately without defining them. This confused me when, for example, the LaCrosse I'm puchasing has driver and front passenger airbags and also has side-impact airbags that protect both the front and rear passengers on both sides. The tool reported the head airbag as "front and rear" and the side airbag as "not available". Huh? And for the Impala, it said the head airbag is "not available" and the side air bag is "driver only" — correct on the side air bag, but wrong on the head airbag, which is standard equipment for both driver and front passenger. Unless these fields don't mean what I think they mean… but no definition was available! Fortunately, I noticed the airbag reporting problems early and simply ignored those fields. It should go without saying that this is not user-friendly.

Why am I telling automakers about problems with third-party tools? Because those tools are using your data. It is in your interest for third-party tools to accurately represent your vehicles. If they're wrong or confusing, you'll lose people who would have been interested in your vehicle. You have to fix the third-party tools — customers aren't going to go to your website until they've used third-party tools to prune their search.

Speaking of tools, your own websites also need a tuneup. My experience in putting together a vehicle on the manufacturer websites was the same every time I tried it — slow. When I click on an option and the page needs to refresh, it should do so immediately. Don't make me wait.

You also need more information on your website. Let me click on every option to get a detailed description of it. (I wonder how many people outside of Alaska wonder "what's an engine block heater?" Your website doesn't tell them.) Don't be bland — market the option to me! Tell me why I want it. Show me. Websites varied about how much they met this expectation, but the general issue is clear: Why would I ever select a paint or wheel upgrade if you don't show me side-by-side comparisons? In general, show me higher resolution pictures of everything. I want to know what the car looks like before going to a dealership. For example, from the website I thought the Impala was somewhat ugly, but when I saw one in person I had the opposite reaction. If I had placed more weight on the vehicle's online appearance, I might never have gone to see it! High-resolution images would ensure an accurate impression.

Make sure all the options are on the website. At the dealership I learned that there's a spoiler option for the LaCrosse — but it's not on the website, and we searched but couldn't find a photograph anywhere. In this case I searched for information, in vain, that you should have eagerly pushed at me.

Please the gearheads. I'm not one myself, but as I was flipping through the LaCrosse brochure at the dealership I saw a graph of the CXS's engine's torque curve and immediately told the salesman "this should be on the website." It should be! Why isn't it? The brochure marketed it as a feature, so the website should too. Be consistent.

Have a vehicle FAQ available for people choosing options. Make it easy to ask questions, because questions expose ways to improve the website.

I'd like to conclude with a few words for GM. Whether it was intentional or not, the lack of StabiliTrack on the Chevy Impala upsold me to the Buick LaCrosse. Well done. If not for that must-have option, I might have spent thousands less on a vehicle "almost" as nice. There might be other, similar kinds of opportunities. "You're interested in feature XYZ? This vehicle doesn't offer it, but it's available on these other fine vehicles in the GM family." I don't know if that would work in general. But it did work on me.

My most general advice is pay attention. Internet shoppers like myself want to know everything before we go to a dealership. If you don't cater to our desire for information, your competitors will, and you'll lose the sale. Take it from a guy in his 20s who bought a Buick: my demographic is unpredictable. And fickle. But one thing that will help win us over is an improved online shopping experience.

Tiny Island