Online platforms like Clutch, Canada Drives and AutoZen avoid the mess

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Some people like buying cars. Some enjoy the research, the hunt, the hunt, the bargaining, the feeling of knowing they not only got the best deal – or even the thrill of beating the dealer.

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If four decades of buying cars and nearly two decades of writing about them has taught me anything, it’s that these people are few and far between. An annual public opinion poll of Canada’s most trusted professions ranks car salespeople second. They were only beaten by the “social media platform owners”, who of course contributed to (created?) global distrust of…everything. We trust car salespeople a little more than that.

It’s unfortunate, and it’s something the industry needs to address. I won’t hold my breath.

For Mona Loones, a 51-year-old nurse from Barrie, the solution to her showroom angst was as close as her keyboard. When her car died, she started digging through used car listings. She knew she wanted a Subaru Outback, but she also dreaded the upcoming dance.

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“I was on AutoTrader and found a 2020 Outback. It was a bit out of my price range, but I spent two days going back to it. I saw a tab marked ‘Clutch’ and I I thought, OK, Clutch, whatever. But clicking that link led Loones to the “best big purchase of my life.”

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For $100, she could put a reserve on the car and investigate further. Clutch is a fast-growing online car buying service that debuted in Canada in 2016. After a horrendous experience in a showroom, founder Steve Seibel set out to create a better way for people to buy cars. CEO Dan Park puts it bluntly: “You buy a car, we don’t sell you one.”

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With an inventory of around 2,500 cars – up to seven years old, although most are three or four years old – Clutch provides a detailed vehicle description, a 360-degree photo package, a Carfax on each available immediately on the site, and a price. When Loones put that $100 hold, she was contacted within ten minutes by a Clutch representative.

“I told them the price was a bit high for my budget, but they just said, OK, we have others. There was no negotiation, just help to stay in my budget. They were well informed, they were type, they were transparent, they were courteous, they didn’t try to influence me. And I had ten days to return it if I didn’t like it!

There is a reason why many women are not comfortable in a showroom, and Loones has never wanted to reproduce the situation. “When I bought my last car, I felt completely duped. I was always on the defensive and I’m not comfortable to negotiate. I do not feel informed enough.

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She had buyer’s remorse, and while she wasn’t a car fan, Loones says it’s an important machine that she uses every day. She also felt invisible, an all-too-common experience for women of a certain age.

Consumers can take advantage of four specific rights they have when they buy from dealers registered with OMVIC.
Consumers may benefit from four specific rights available to them when purchasing from OMVIC-registered resellers. Photo by Getty

“We call our staff customer advisors, not salespeople,” says Park. Loones had mentioned that she spoke to several young women in her dealings with Clutch. Park says they aim for diversity and inclusion in their recruiting, but the best candidates win. He estimates that half of their advisers are women. “We are not intimidating. This model appeals to many people, including women or newcomers to the country. From a base of 50 employees, they have hired 280 more in the last year alone and have established themselves in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

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From five country offices, they expand their inventory with a 14-person buying team. A team of 25-30 mechanics are on board so that each vehicle is thoroughly inspected, and mileage, condition and data science are used to determine the market price. The ten-day return policy was absolutely an important consideration for Loones. “We have very low single-digit returns,” says Park. Even more interesting is how Clutch handles trades.

Loones answered ten questions about the car she was getting rid of. Park says people are remarkably honest, and again, using this tech company’s data science, they can determine by a decent margin what your trade is worth. In a traditional setting, a swap is one more step where customers are on their toes, nervous about giving up more ground in an area they often don’t know. During a series of phone calls and a final inspection, Loones was able to find out exactly what they would offer him for his old car as well as the price of the newer one. “I took it to my own mechanic and he was blown away. He’s old school, but now he’s considering using Clutch,” she laughs. “And, when I opened the trunk, I found a free set of snow tires!” (It was a happy bonus, not something Clutch includes with every purchase.)

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With dealers eager for used cars, Autozen's timing in the Canadian market couldn't have been better.
With dealers eager for used cars, Autozen’s timing in the Canadian market couldn’t have been better. Photo by Getty

The worst part of the dealership experience is the finance desk. You think you’re finally done, and then the upsell begins. Rustproofing, paint protection, extended warranties, tire protection, the list is endless – and unless you’ve done a lot of research, it can be taxing. Clutch also sells all of these things and can arrange financing as well. But there is no thrust. “We just don’t pay you a price throughout the transaction,” Park says. “You can buy extras, but there’s no pressure.” As e-commerce has grown to include seemingly limitless categories, people who at one time would not have been comfortable buying shoes or televisions online are now looking for the same transparency and the same ease for larger purchases, including cars. “We are another option in the car buying landscape.”

Helpful advisors, transparent pricing, a range of products only if you want them, a car delivered to your doorstep and a ten-day return policy. For Mona Loones, she will never buy a car otherwise. She even reports that her 81-year-old mother, who “never walked away from the Honda dealership,” will be using Clutch for her next car. “We need more growth in this direction,” says Loones. “I felt safe, recognized and heard.”

Oh, and for the top part of this most trusted list? Nurses come right after firefighters.

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