Is the bloom off the e-commerce rose?

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Is the bloom off the e-commerce rose? As big marketing dollars migrate to the Web, sites seem to be tailoring the selling process to the needs of advertisers rather than those of the customer.

The result is increasing consumer frustration, as evidenced by a blizzard of e-mail in response to recent columns on Web travel sites, auctions and Amazon.com’s customer-satisfaction rating.

Add another category to the whine list: automobile purchasing. The indexing, search and direct-marketing capabilities of the Web initially promised an end to the unpleasantries of car salespeople. You find the car you want, you make an offer in e-mail, and that’s it.

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To test this value proposition I spent several weeks doing parallel car shopping — on the Web and in person. What I found was that for Web sites and dealerships, the Internet is primarily a way to get a customer’s name and phone number. Beyond that, the process worked substantially the same as when I walked into a showroom.

Without exception, the big-name Web sites you see and hear advertised on major media merely handed off my personal information (including the model I sought) to local dealerships. They did not, in other words, say, “We’ve found your car, here’s the price, and here’s where you can go to pick it up.”

Once I filled in the forms, I got numerous e-mails from dealership salespeople. Even though they knew the car I wanted, none would give me a price.

They all wanted to talk it over. I’d pretty much wasted my time doing the Web legwork.

Granted, you can find new cars with prices listed on the Web. But they typically are large-production lines, inventory closeouts or vehicles that don’t meet your specifications (or are somewhere in the Midwest).

The process was substantially the same for three major car brands over a six-month period using five high-profile vehicle-sales Web sites.

Luckily there are still some e-havens for the beleaguered car purchaser.

Foremost is Craigslist.org, the free classified-ads site. Search on a vehicle brand and model and you’ll typically find dozens of entries. Best of all, there’s an actual price. You can do follow-up communication, including negotiating, by e-mail. At some point you’re going to want to meet the seller and see the car, but with Craigslist you can avoid wasting a lot of time.

Notably, Craigslist does not run car ads. Craigslist even asks dealers to identify themselves as such in their ad (all listers can remain anonymous if they prefer), so buyers wary of dealerships can sidestep them.

(Although I’m focusing here on pure-Web plays, I should note that The Seattle Times offers classifieds on the Web. There are plenty of ads, but search allows you to filter for dealers and private parties.)

Other powerful Web tools exist for car shoppers. One is the Consumer Reports site, where invoice pricing, the all-important dealer holdback, and full car specifications can be downloaded for a fee. Another is the Kelley Blue Book site, www.kbb.com, which lists blue-book pricing for private-party transactions as well as dealers in a handy e-format and it’s free. Carfax provides a vehicle’s “medical history” for a fee.

And don’t forget car forums on the Web, which often post valuable consumer information on recalls, repair histories and pricing.

There’s no question the Web has altered the car-buying experience. The utopian day may still come when we can order exactly the options and pricing we want over the Web on a build-your-own basis. For now, vehicle purchasing could be a whole lot more consumer-friendly.

It reminds me of an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, where the famously cynical author talked about how TV was originally supposed “to teach my children Korean and trigonometry.” Instead we got infomercials, and Vonnegut predicted the Internet likewise “will be two lanes loaded with tollgates, and it’s going to tell you what to look for” — instead of finding what you want.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of “Gates.” He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com