Online Shopping: Is it for you?

Cyber Shopping

Shopping online can be appealing, and the products touted on glamorous Web sites are rather convincing. But the real question is do you really know what you’re getting when you’re purchasing an item online? The truth of the matter is you don’t.

But just as there are dangers associated with shopping online, there are also perks in browsing Web sites. If you’re in the market for let’s say an accessible adaptive vehicle, browsing a dealer’s Web site could make the difference in going to the dealership with  the right questions in mind versus going without having a clue as to what's offered.

 As consumers, it’s important that you’re able to hold the person who sold you the equipment responsible should anything go awry.  There are a number of factors that you'll want to think about before deciding on a purchase.

Before doing anything you may regret down the line, you may want to take a look at the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association’s Web site. NMEDA has outlined information that makes consumers aware of the differences between purchasing new modified vehicles online as opposed to in person. For a detailed list of concerns and possible safety issues of shopping online for adaptive automotive vehicles, go to www.nmeda.org/online_purch/index.html.

Educate yourself through the World Wide Web

First thing's first. You must remember that buying a new vehicle means contracts and other legal obligations, so people aren't able to make transactions online, said Claudia Obertries, president of The Ability Center, which has five locations in: San Diego; Stanton, Calif.; Las Vegas; Sacramento, Calif.; and Phoenix.

"A new vehicle, according to manufacturers, needs to be sold at the dealership, and the reason for that is because the dealership provides the service and warranty repairs," she explains.

Rather than viewing the Internet as a place to purchase an accessible automobile, look at it as an information gathering tool. This is exactly how The Ability Center uses its Web site. Site visitors have the chance to browse the Web page and even speak to a live mobility consultant. So if you have questions about vans or another need, operators are standing by to provide information or invite you to come in to the dealership or arrange a home consultation with you.

Many dealers use their Internet Web sites to help you, the consumer, learn about the features and functions of adapted vehicles. Mobility Medical Vans’ Web site, (www.mobilitymedicalvans.com), is structured to educate end-users on vehicles’ heights, ramp lengths, configurations of seating and other features, says owner Steve Kellner. Kellner, who's based in Tampa, Fla., also does business on eBay.

 “There’s a ton of questions that these people have as new users,” Kellner says. “They don’t understand why the floor is dropped, why the ramp goes out to the side versus the rear, and (Web sites) are great ways to educate the end-user.”

Internet Shopping: You never can tell what you're going to get

It is important for a client to be seen in person because each has a different condition, situation and family need, Obertreis says.

Stan Nystrom, owner of Handicap Vehicles (www.handicapvehicle.com) in Phoenix, agrees that each customer is different and that fact alone makes buying a vehicle online potentially harmful. There are some issues that can not be compromised which include service and fitting, types of vehicles, medical conditions and their possible progressions and disabilities.

A few of the uncertainties that may arise when selling online include whether or not the vehicle will fit into the consumer’s garage or whether the consumer’s wheelchair will fit into the modified vehicle. For example, two end-users of the same overall height when standing may be of two different heights when they sit in their wheelchairs. People who are tall from the waist up may have a harder time ducking to clear a van’s ceiling, even if their overall height would indicate they should have no problem.

The individual or family’s ability to operate the piece of equipment should be considered among other pertinent things — and that’s not easy to do if the customers aren’t available for a face-to-face consultation, Nystrom added.

Buying items off the internet is more than just tricky, but it can be down right dangerous. The online component diminishes the ability for you to see what it is that you’ve signed up for, Kellner explains. In an effort to get more people out to his dealership, Kellner offers an incentive many can not refuse. He buys anyone interested in purchasing a van from his business, a one-way plane ticket and a night’s stay in a hotel.

 “I’ll pay up to $500 for anybody to fly here,” he says. “Come kick the tires and drive the van home, which I think is a big plus for the end-user, as well as us. Because you get them here, and maybe that 2001 Dodge they’ve been looking at on the Internet is nice, but maybe the 2000 works better for them for some reason.”

Most dealers would agree that searching for a used vehicle online can be beneficial. That is the only time Nystrom views buying a vehicle online as helpful is if it is one that’s used.

“Let’s say you have a ‘98 Dodge Grand Caravan, and you wreck and total it,” he explains. “Because these are not plentiful, you might not be able to find something in your area that is comparable.”

The primary reason the deal should be handled in person is because the adaptive automotive business is one that is service-oriented. As a consumer you will need to develop a good relationship with dealers because you’ll be seeing them again.

“You’re going to constantly be going back for adjustments,” Kellner says.

Meeting the dealer face to face will save you hardship later

 It is very important that consumers know that purchasing accessible automotive equipment is not just a one time deal, says Marc Sagal, president and CFO of Access Options, Inc. (www.accessoptions.com/contact-us.html), who has two locations in Sunnyvale and Watsonville, Calif.  Sagal says there’s an ongoing relationship with the customer and seller — and the value of that relationship should be emphasized.

“(Consumers) may save money up front, but pay it over the long run,” Sagal says. “If (they) ever have a problem, who’s going to fix it? It’s going to require service down the road, and in order to get the proper support that they’re going to need to keep the vehicle on the road and running correctly and safely, they need to establish a relationship with someone in the local area.”

You should also avoid being sucked in by some of the traps on the Internet. If you find a vehicle that’s less expensive than those at the dealership, you should know that deals that sound too good to be true typically are.

“For the most part, the car industry is pretty comparable,” Kellner says. “You’re not usually going to get a big swing, unless (a vehicle is) a complete piece of junk. To find a $25,000 van retail out there that’s used is like gold because they’re either $44,000-$54,000 or $10,000 with 100,000 miles on them.”

One of the major differences between buying an adaptive vehicle online versus a regular vehicle, is there are many different dealerships that could service a regular one. Things work differently in the adaptive automotive industry.

“Those that have purchased accessible vehicles need them every day to work,” Obertreis says. “And if they don’t have that technical support, sort of an emergency hotline, it makes it very difficult.”

Searching a Web site for the prices and models a company has to offer is a good start, but the search shouldn’t end there. Consumers need to go out to the dealership and get acquainted.

“It works just fine to get someone started down the right path,” Sagal says, “but to buy a picture is risky.”

About the Author

Lunzeta Brackens is a contributing editor for Mobility Management.

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