The Experience of Buying a Car: Discovering CarMax
Let me start by saying I really don’t like buying cars. They are a depreciating asset from the moment you drive them off the lot. They are an expense. Their function, in my opinion, is to get you from point A to point B. While for some they may be a projection of their image, a symbol of their truest self, cars do not represent that for me. They are utilitarian.
Recently, my spouse and I decided it was time to return back west. We had spent 21 wonderful years in the Kansas City area raising our daughters, but that time was coming to a close. Our oldest was in LA and your youngest was entering graduate school. Neither of them would have much time for us and we realized it was a good time for us to return to our roots, so to speak. In planning the logistics, it quickly became apparent to us we had a lot of moving in our next few years. Moving our daughter (twice). Moving to an apartment after selling our house and not being ready to move west yet. Then finally moving to Salt Lake City, but not yet buying a house. We wanted to wait a couple years to get our youngest through most of grad school before really settling in, and guess what? That meant another move in a couple years.
Over the years, I’ve increasingly focused on getting good gas milage, so it was a little disconcerting when we came to the conclusion that we needed a truck. There were just too many things to haul around over the next 2-3 years and we needed the flexibility of being able to move something on our time schedule, not U-Haul’s. So a truck it was. I diligently (and happily) jumped into the research.
Um, have you looked for a truck recently? I haven’t, so I was slightly shocked at the magnitude of makes and models available. At first I thought a mid-sized truck would do, but I discovered that market had been all but abandoned with the exception of Toyota (the Tacoma). Most were underpowered vestiges of trucks of the 90’s with a lot of complaints. I was focused on the Tacoma until I saw that it was $10,000 more (used) than larger trucks and also fairly small in cabin space. So a full-sized truck it was.
I have to admit something. After years of eschewing big cars, I have to say the Ford F-150 seduced me. Loving reviews peppered every site I visted. The 2011 model and beyond got better milage due to the Eco-Boost engine (only 3 mpg less highway than my Saturn Ion) and Ford really seemed to focus on keeping it modern and fresh. But alas, the same problem arose. Because of its popularity, any low-milage 2011 F-150 was much higher than it’s GMC/Dodge/Chevrolet peers. So, I focused my searching on three trucks. The GMC Sierra, The Chevrolet Siverado and yes, the Ford F-150 (I just couldn’t let it go). I set up alerts with Cars.com, AutoTrader.com and Edmunds.com, and started checking into trucks that fit into my milage and price criteria. This is where it got a little discouraging.
As I started interacting with different dealers, the memories came flooding back. The constant focus on trying to wheel and deal. Start with price, then add a barrage of “What if I throw in…” and finally the inevitable “You know, for only a few thousand more, I can get you in a new car.” I hated it and was just about ready to bag it. Then a link to CarMax came up in one of my links. I hadn’t thought about them for a long time (I think I visited the local store about 10 years ago and didn’t really see anything I liked). There was a dark blue Chevy Silverado with the right miles and the right price. I sent them an email, expecting to get the same email or call as I had from others. But what I received was a surprise.
Sara from CarMax called to let me know the truck I was interested in was in fact available, and would I like to schedule a time to come in and drive it? When the time I suggested didn’t work for her, she quickly offered to let one of her associates help me. That seemed odd - wasn’t she losing a commission? But that worked for me, and I scheduled a drive with Gayland. When arriving at the store, I braced myself for the typical outspoken, back-slapping salesperson I seem to attract at car dealers. Instead, everyone was friendly, calm and pretty laid back. More than anything, Gayland just asked questions to try to get at what I was really looking for. Then, we went out and strolled around the lot. No hurry, no pressure, just me asking lots of questions. We test drove the Silverado, and it was nice, but just not quite what I wanted. In the past, that would have resulted in more “What would it take to get you in this car?” badgering. Instead, he simply said “Well, we’ll just keep it in mind while you keep shopping around. Call me if you have any more questions.” Nice. And here’s where CarMax brought me into the fold.
Just two days later, my dream Ford F-150 showed up at CarMax. Low milage, great condition and at my pricing sweet spot. The problem? It was at a different CarMax about 40 miles away. I really liked working with Gayland, so I called them up to see if they would transfer the car over my local CarMax. “Of course,” said Jared “we can get that going right away. But it will take about four days. Do you want to come drive it to see if it’s what you want first?” This may sound a little weird, but I felt like I was somehow ripping Gayland off. He’s the one that had helped me and encouraged me to look around. So I called him and guess what? He told me not to worry. Go check out the car. I don’t know how CarMax pays their people, but if they’ve figured out a way to pay them that encourages them to collaborate and not compete, it’s working.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the story, other than to say CarMax has the process down. Total time spent before driving the truck off the lot? 1 hour 30 minutes. Last time I bought a car it was 3 hours. And Jared was professional, relaxed and helpful. The place was clean, modern-looking and efficient. Every person was personable and friendly.
So what have they done? Several big things for me:
- Removed the pressure and fear from the “looking” phase by putting the customer in control of the process
- Created a sense of collaboration among their people instead of the feeling that you are part of a big sales contest your salesperson is trying to win
- Gave me one place to look at lots of different cars
- Made the paperwork phase much less painful. While we still had to sign a lot of paperwork, most of the information was inputted during our discussion and autofilled most the forms. Huge time-saver and huge perception builder in my eyes (these guys actually know what they are doing)
What could be different? The only part of the experience I’d change is the knowledge of the cars. That seems almost impossible, since they sell, well, EVERY car made. So while it would be nice, that’s really on me. Maybe if they had one or two experts on site whose job is just to be car nerds. They can just roam the grounds, ready to answer questions when a salesperson calls or texts them with a question.
I realize this sounds like one long pitch for CarMax, but you can check me out (LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) - I have no affiliation with them. They just really impressed me and I wanted to share that experience.
Tomorrow, I’m going to write about the experience of the first couple days owning a new truck. While it’s better than I can remember, it still leaves a lot to be desired and I think car manufacturers can do a much better job of welcoming someone into the fold.