After General Motors’ bankruptcy, there is no question that the automobile industry will change significantly. With less competition and higher costs of production, prices will increase. It will be more difficult and more expensive to find parts and service for some vehicles. The selection of vehicles will be more limited.
Perhaps more brands will opt to adopt the sales philosophy held by Saturn and Scion: the price advertised is the price you pay. At first, the concept seemed like a scam. You always negotiate car prices, but with Saturn’s entrance to the market, the manufacturers or dealers said, “Don’t negotiate with us anymore; it’s our price or no sale.”
This method, where cars were sold more like a commodity than a luxury, proved to be quite popular, especially with younger individuals who do not have haggling experience. Taken to the step beyond prix fixe voiture, cars could be sold “off the shelf” in retail stores rather than dealerships. According to US News & World Report, at least one retail outlet in Mexico sells cars in addition to other typical retail products, and the United States may follow.
Just about the only place to buy a car these days is a traditional dealership, thanks largely to powerful franchise laws in most states that keep other competitors at bay. But as automakers slash their retail networks, dealers are losing their clout. For new offerings such as minicars, and perhaps cheap Chinese imports, a big showroom with a dedicated sales staff might not even make sense. That could open the way for retailers like Costco or Wal-Mart to start selling cars.
This may be the future of automobile sales: View the floor models in an open area of the massive store, talk to the salesperson, and as if the product were a high-definition television, let the salesperson try to talk you into the extended warranty and other options. Wait for him to bring the car from the stock garage in the back to the cashier, where you pay the price on the sticker. Perhaps you’ll put your purchase on your credit card (store credit will be offered) and earn loyalty points.
I expect most popular brands, like Honda and Toyota, might not accept this model. It may be suitable for lower tier brands and low-cost models not yet popular in the United States. The New General Motors may see this sales avenue as the path back to profitability.
Would you prefer to buy cars from retail stores like Wal-Mart or Costco if this new sales philosophy reaches the United States?
Published or updated June 4, 2009.