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Previously in Web Citations:

99.03.17
Lifetime Achievement

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was a filmmaker who kept his distance from Hollywood. His vision appears ever more original -- and lonely.

99.03.04
Modem Bride

Wedding planning made so easy even your mother can handle it.

99.02.25
Be Fruitful and Multiply

When it comes to modern reproductive technology, many are turning to the Web for a helping hand.

99.02.17
Democratic Vistas

"I sing the body electric," Walt Whitman wrote. Little did he know what he was prophesying.

99.02.03
Something for Everyone

As more and more live video comes to the Web, there's always something on -- but is there anything to watch?

99.01.27
The Law and Spirit of the Letter

The digital age may (or may not) spell the death of print, but it has breathed new life into the art of type.

99.01.20
Be-In Digital

In some quarters, the spirit of Haight-Ashbury is still kicking. Should we care?

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.





Wheeling and Dealing
April 1, 1999

clicking for cars American businesses, both large and small, have generally long since discarded the ancient practice of haggling with customers, and instead rely on a straightforward system of fixed prices. This makes sense -- in late-twentieth-century capitalism, as the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox points out in the March Atlantic, the market (a.k.a God) likes "as few inconvenient particularities as possible." There's a very odd exception to this rule, however: cars. The automobile business seems to represent a kind of cultural-economic Galapagos island on which haggling long ago took root and evolved entirely on its own. The result is a set of sales practices that, although highly evolved, bear little resemblance to those in other sectors of the economy. "Some American car dealerships have become so sophisticated that they no longer even sell cars," the humorist Dave Barry has noted. "You just go in there and sign legal papers for a couple of hours and get your rebate and your zero-percent financing with no payments due until next Halloween, and you drive home in your same old car. Ask your automotive sales professional for details. He's clinging to your leg right now."

The way cars are sold may soon change dramatically. Last week two of the most popular car-sales Web sites -- Autobytel.com and Autoweb.com -- went public, and their share prices immediately skyrocketed. (Plaid-clothing stocks, on the other hand, quickly and perhaps permanently guttered out.)

Autobytel.com and Autoweb.com -- and other sites like them, including cars.com and Microsoft's CarPoint -- are remarkably alike, and a quick look at them offers a glimpse of what it will be like to buy a car in coming years. All tap into existing dealer networks and offer extensive listings of new and used cars -- at low, fixed prices. All allow visitors to search a geographic area for specific makes and models, and to post advertisements for selling their own cars. All offer research tools -- including, in some cases, direct access to independent online resources such as the Kelley Blue Book (where used-car values can quickly be calculated), Edmund's Automobile Buyer's Guide (a terrific all-purpose site), and Autofax.com (where comprehensive vehicle-history reports for individual cars are available for a fee). All offer industry news, product reviews, financing options, insurance and warranty arrangements, and more. The idea is one-stop shopping, with as little exposure to salespeople as possible, and it has undeniable appeal -- so much so, in fact, that it probably won't be too long before the insatiable Amazon.com (which aspires to become the market for everything) swallows up one or more of these new sites.

And what of haggling for cars in the showroom? Will the practice finally die a long-overdue death? Have car salespeople as we now know them -- as inconvenient particularities, that is -- reached an evolutionary dead end? Quite probably. But then again, mutation is evolution's spark, so watch out . . .

--Toby Lester


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More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Toby Lester is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Car-as-mouse image from Autobytel.com.

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