There Are Potholes – But Also Success Stories – for Mobility Dealers & Consumers Alike
In a world where almost anything can be purchased with the click of a button, many consumers take the hassle out of shopping by purchasing items online. In many cases, all they need to do is tap the mouse, input credit card information and their items will be delivered to them.
The convenience of online shopping: Is it refreshing or distressing? Most people would answer with a resounding both. The convenience of online shopping has probably appealed to everyone at some point or another. However, online shopping has its ups and downs. When you make an online purchase, you’re essentially buying a picture — there’s no guarantee that what you see on your computer screen is what you’ll get.
There is a plethora of factors to consider when making any online purchase, and that’s particularly true of adaptive automotive vehicles. On its Web site, the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) has outlined information to inform consumers of the differences between purchasing new modified vehicles online versus in person. Dana Roeling, executive director of NMEDA, says the organization has no official stance on the issue, but NMEDA does acknowledge that purchasing adaptive automotive vehicles via the Web can be problematic.
“NMEDA does not have an official statement on Internet sales based on restraint of trade,” Roeling says, “but the piece that we have on the Web site (www.nmeda.org/online_purch/index.html) discusses the concerns and safety issues that need to be looked at.”
But businesses also realize that having a Web site can drive consumers to their physical locations and provide general information about the products offered. Many adaptive automotive dealers have therefore developed a symbiotic relationship with the Internet.
Catch the Technology Wave
So as a mobility dealer, should you build a virtual business on the Information Superhighway — and if so, how do you create a successful electronic presence?
Claudia Obertreis is president of The Ability Center, which has five locations: San Diego; Stanton, Calif.; Las Vegas; Sacramento, Calif.; and Phoenix. Obertreis says the company’s Web site (www.abilitycenter.com) provides education on mobility products without requiring consumers to leave the comfort of their own homes. But the Web site doesn’t eliminate the need to visit a dealership.
Buying a new vehicle requires contracts and other legal obligations, so people aren’t able to make transactions via The Ability Center’s Web site, Obertreis says.
“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.
But those who browse The Ability Center’s site will quickly find information about vehicles and have the opportunity to speak to a live mobility consultant.
“When someone e-mails in to say that they’re interested in a van or they have another need, we have people standing by to return those phone calls to give further information in person, over the phone, to invite them to come out to the dealership — or we’ll come out to their home. Something will be arranged,” Obertreis says.
Though she doesn’t believe automotive business transactions should be done online — “Every client is different depending on their specific condition, situation and family needs,” she says — Obertreis does believe it is critical for companies to change with the times and add Web sites to their business model.
“From what I understand, the companies that have Web sites are growing faster than those that don’t,” she says. “I think consumers are of an age group that grew up using the Internet to buy other products and obtain other information.”
Other mobility dealers use their Web sites to educate potential buyers about the features and functions of adapted vehicles. For instance, 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. Based in Tampa, Fla., Kellner 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.”
Buyer – & Seller – Beware
Purchasing items from the Internet should definitely come with a buyer beware tag, says Kellner. The online component knocks out the ability for consumers to see what they’re really getting, he explains.
In contrast, local mobility dealers tend to offer better incentives while allowing customers to choose their vehicles for themselves. Kellner says he’ll buy 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.”
The only time Stan Nystrom, owner of Handicap Vehicles (www.handicapvehicle.com) in Phoenix, views buying a vehicle online as being helpful is if the vehicle is 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.”
But in addition to buyer risk, Nystrom thinks mobility dealers also need to use caution when selling vehicles over the Web. For instance, he believes it’s hard to sell a vehicle online and take care of a customer. He notes there are many variables that have to be included in the formula when selling online: service and fitting, types of vehicles, medical conditions and their possible progressions, and disabilities.
Other issues that may arise when selling online include whether 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.
In other words, each customer is different, which makes online selling and buying potentially problematic.
“Even when you have all that expertise and everything’s still there, it’s just hard,” Nystrom says.” It’s not like you’re buying a piece of stereo equipment.”
Service Is Key
The adaptive automotive business is definitely a service-oriented one. Drivers needing hand controls or low-effort steering and braking systems should develop a good relationship with their providers, these mobility dealers say.
“You’re going to constantly be going back for adjustments,” Kellner says. Nystrom agrees that the biggest element end-users need to consider before making a purchase is service. But he also adds that dealers also need to consider the service element before deciding to sell online. Nystrom says dealers must consider the individual or family’s ability to operate the piece of equipment, for instance — and that’s not easy to do if the customers aren’t available for a face-to-face consultation.
Nystrom does sell used vehicles online, but he won’t sell a vehicle with any adaptive equipment in it. And the vehicles that he posts for sale are only for customers in his area, he says.
“If someone calls up from out of town and wants to buy hand controls, we always turn them back to NMEDA or have them check with manufacturers who have dealers in their area,” he says. “A lot of people are shopping price, price, price, and they don’t understand… We don’t sell for liability (reasons), and we don’t want to see anyone get hurt.”
Consumers lured to the Internet in hopes of finding vehicles that are less expensive than those at a dealership should know 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.” Comparable pricing is even more common in the mobility industry because, Kellner says, adaptive equipment holds its value. “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,” he says.
Those facts are important for dealers to know and pass along to consumers because consumers are becoming very educated in terms of accessible vehicle pricing, Obertreis added.
“That is something the whole mobility industry is going to have to deal with, whereas in years past the consumer didn’t know the prices of anything,” she says. “They just were willing to pay for what they thought was a good deal at the time.”
Purchasing Online vs. in Person
Purchasing adaptive equipment online is unlike buying a car, Obertreis says. When buying a regular vehicle, a myriad of dealerships could probably service it. But not just anyone can service an accessible vehicle.
Some consumers who are Internet savvy don’t understand what a good opportunity it is to actually buy from a local dealer.
“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.”
Dealers should prove to consumers should be that an accessible automotive purchase is not 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.”
Sagal redirects those who call for quotes outside of his area to NMEDA.
“If someone from the East Coast thinks that we have a better price on a brand-new vehicle than somebody on the East Coast does, we think the ethical thing to do is say you should call your East Coast vendor,” he says. “I don’t think it’s ethical to put someone in the position of buying a vehicle that they’re not able to get support for. As I say, it cost more to do business in California than it does in South Dakota, so we have to pass that cost on to the consumer, but they also get more for the additional costs — 24-hour emergency service, 365 days a year if they need it, and factory-trained technicians available to fix equipment.”
Getting to Know You
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, but to buy a picture is risky,” Sagal says. “Some of the biggest Internet sellers don’t provide support, so we’ve been put in the position where somebody calls us up and says, ‘I just bought this vehicle from a company in South Dakota, you’re a dealer for the modifier — you have to fix it.’ It puts us in a very difficult position.”
Some consumers don’t visit the Web site first, but instead call to inquire which vehicles are in stock, and Sagal directs them to his site to view vehicles that may work for them. But aside from being a place to display vehicles and get quotes, Sagal says his Web address is virtually useless when it comes to making an online transaction.
“Unlike some Internet sellers, we only sell in areas that we can service, as our product is unique; it’s not an off-the-shelf product,” Sagal says.
The bottom line is that purchasing an adaptive automotive vehicle takes more than Internet savvy and the right-click of a mouse. It’s important that customers are aware of what they’re getting into when trying to cut corners on the Information Superhighway. But as a mobility dealer, you also need to be aware of the potential potholes of selling over the Internet — and ways to navigate around them successfully.