Car Buying, Reenvisioned: More Like Shopping for Apple Gadgets, Ice Cream, or a Date

Imagine if buying a car was more like online matchmaking and less like, well, the miserable, stressful modern-day experience of buying a car.

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Buying a new car is an awful experience. The sentiment has been expressed by many people, in many colorful ways. A few examples:

In 2009, John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America, addressed a crowd of auto insiders with refreshing honesty when he admitted that the entire industry was “viewed with contempt,” and that “we have reached the point where, frankly, Americans would rather go to the dentist than visit a car dealer.”

The traditional back-and-forth games at car dealerships is “a process designed for the village idiot,” according to the CEO of the nation’s largest car dealership chain, quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal piece.

“Buying a car sucks,” Scott Painter flatly told NPR. Painter is the founder and CEO of TrueCar, a service that’s supposed to help consumers buy cars at a decent price—and theoretically makes the experience less sucky.

(MORE: How Car Buying Is Becoming Less Awful — Or At Least Less Time-Consuming)

Does it have to be this way? The NPR story, titled “Why Buying a Car Never Changes,” basically says that, yeah, it does, thanks to legal restrictions regarding car dealership franchises, as well as the shocking stubbornness of the auto industry as a whole.

But the folks who attended a recent two-day brainstorming session, which was dubbed the “Hackomotive” and sponsored by, think differently. The event, held in Santa Monica, Calif., a few weeks ago, was a “challenge that focuses on re-imagining the car shopping experience by bringing together consumers, dealers, manufacturers, designers and technologists to shatter the status quo.” Groups were asked to submit suggestions for changing the way cars are bought and sold, with the hopes that maybe, just maybe, one or more of the plans would be less awful than the current car-shopping experience.

What did the teams come up with? While the utility of online dating services has been questioned, many of the submissions for a re-imagined car-buying experience borrowed tools featured on popular matchmaking sites, according to an Edmunds report:

About a half-dozen of the 19 teams suggested solutions consisted of some element of online dating and matchmaking. “Most of the ideas conveyed the theme that car shopping is not just about making a purchase, but about creating a trust-based relationship,” said CEO Avi Steinlauf.

In the end, two teams instead of one took home first prize of $10,000 each. Both winning teams recommended a process that, using social media and other input, matches a car salesperson to an individual car shopper by interest and expertise much as online dating services match couples.

(MORE: Whodathunkit? Auto Dealerships Realize Responding to Customer E-mails Helps to Sell Cars)

Some of the team names were obviously plays on romantic e-matchmaking brands: eCarmony, Car Cupid, Kar Match. Other Hackomotive attendees focused on the need to make car-buying more fun and experiential. One of the speakers encouraged the teams to be so creative with their ideas that shoppers would one day say, without a huge heap of sarcasm, “I wish the Apple store was more like an auto dealership.” Or even something like: “My check engine light comes on and I smile.”

When asked what car shopping should be like, Michael Accavitti, vice president of marketing at American Honda, and one of the judges at the challenge, offered the following description:

It should be like when you go to an ice cream store. Everybody is happy at the ice cream store. They are laughing, smiling and joking. When you buy a car, it should be the same.

(MORE: How to Make the Worst Part of Buying a Car a Little Less Miserable)

That sounds nice. But how does that translate into real life? Well, it doesn’t. Ice cream shops don’t make customers haggle for hours in order to get a fair price. Whereas customers don’t have much reason to distrust the teenager scooping the ice cream, it’s beyond naïve to believe everything a car salesman tells you. There’s obviously a large difference in the amount of money at stake in an ice cream shop versus a car dealership too. At the ice cream store, you might get upsold on some sprinkles—presumably, the car dealership equivalent of thousands of dollars spent unnecessarily on extended warranties, “doc fees,” rust protection, paint sealer, and such.

And car people wonder why consumers aren’t laughing and joking at the auto dealership.