Kinder, gentler used cars?

December 14, 1993

Most businesses are loath to acknowledge problems in serving their audience. The auto industry, however, not only admits to its bad rep, it uses it for ad campaigns.

A recent radio commercial for one car line, for example, measures the heartbeat of a fictitious patient when confronted with various stimuli. When a member of the opposite sex asks if the neighboring bar stool is available, the pulse quickens. When a pilot announces the engine has just fallen off the plane, the pulse races faster. What makes the cardiogram really go berserk? The friendly greeting of a salesman on a car lot. In fact, another car line, General Motors' Saturn, centers its whole pitch on the accepted notion that car-buying is frightful.

So we were struck by the recent report that Circuit City Stores Inc., the consumer electronics giant, is going to really test its slogan, "where service is state-of-the-art," by breaking into the used car business. Circuit City opened its first CarMax lot near its corporate home, Richmond. According to Evening Sun business writer Ted Shelsby, the place looks more like a fancy new car dealership than your classic used car lot with the string of light bulbs out front and prices white-washed across the car windows. The CarMax "sales consultants" use personal computers to help customers narrow their choices, then ferry them around the grounds in golf carts. The list price is what you pay. Clearly, this ain't your father's used car lot.

Some competitors are dubious, figuring the fancy trappings will only boost prices. But the concept just might fill a niche for folks who can't afford new cars, but aren't comfortable horse-trading.

Of course, with the "information superhighway" revving up, it is only a matter of time before we're shopping for cars via interactive computers. According to The Wall Street Journal, Chrysler is already getting 50,000 inquiries a year from potential buyers on the Prodigy system, nearly twice as many calls as on its toll-free telephone line.

Our only worry about all this? With car-buying made easy, the American people will get soft and overlook the fun (or the hard edge) of bargaining.

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