Web Informant #131, 9 November 1998:
We still need to kick the tires


One criticism from my last essay on online shopping search sites was buying low-end merchandize like bottles of wine and Beanie Babies is not really showing the web in its best light. Given the volume of Cisco routers, Dell PCs and expensive air tickets and tour packages sold over the web continues to rise, I should have focussed my energies at more expensive items.

I am not sure that things would be any different. For a first hand perspective, here is a report from long-time friend David Bolles:

I have an interesting perspective on eCommerce from both buying and selling sides, having recently bought and sold the same Recreational Vehicle (RV) in the past year. What I found is that people - including myself -- still need the physical experience of shopping and aren't ready to fully embrace the web yet. Indeed, the web still has a long way to go, particularly if you are going to be on the selling side.

So, when my family decided to travel the western US in a big RV, I YAHOO'd my way to several classified services looking for a big land yacht. When I began this process, I knew nothing about RVs. Several surfing days and emails later, I was armed with stacks of printouts and loads of information about my target: a used 1994 or 1995 Bounder.

But I didn't buy online - I went to a dealer. Without the Internet research I would have missed the features I needed for our trip and definitely paid more for my RV. I did NOT buy from the Internet classifieds for several reasons. First, I didn't want to drive to Florida from San Diego where I live to pick up the RV. Second, negotiating over email is kind of difficult. Some people are very attached to their RV's and bristle (spamlike) when you offer a lower price. Finally, there just weren't that many RV's listed that met my objective. The Internet is a younger forum that maybe your average RV buyer/seller with a few gray hairs hasn't fully realized yet. Or maybe replacing an older culture's learned habits takes quite some time to accomplish.

We traveled the western USA with no problems; enjoying the RV as a temporary home for almost a complete month. Then it was time to sell the Bounder. I picked the three largest RV Classified boards and emailed the advertisements with digital pictures attached and a credit card number to pay the fees which averaged about $40 for six months. Pretty reasonable I thought to sell a $40,000 RV. Much cheaper than local classified newspaper listings.

Guess what. Four months later, the two plastic orange and black "For Sale" signs brought in three times the volume of qualified buyers than the Internet advertisements. I was stunned. Here is this massive web of electronic commerce where any buyer can instantly sort through thousands of classified RV advertisements looking for just what they want - and I only got two emails per month. One proposed a rude cheapo price (ha, I knew that approach!). One asked me a few questions then dropped away - no surprise. No one came over to see the unit.

Contrast this with my "For Sale" signs. They brought in lots of great traffic. The signs admittedly got lots of veiwership as my house is on a well traveled tourist street - but still would you have guessed at three times the volume of hits? A middle-age couple planning to retire and travel the USA ended up buying it four months after our trip. Ironically, the buyer found my listing on the web site AFTER placing the down payment and emailed me about it. He also worked for a high-tech company in San Diego and was used to email and the web, but didn't think to try the Internet before seeing my "For Sale" sign.

As a seller, I learned that kicking the tires is a real plus. Sure, I'd like to see technology advance to where we can zap down a copy of our favorite movie over the Internet. But I also enjoy walking around the video store, communing with fellow renters, getting rapid eye input from aisle after aisle of video boxes, and interacting with a clerk while watching the latest release playing on the monitor above the checkout stand. Or having a potential buyer walk around my RV for that matter.

As a buyer, having the web to do research is unparalleled, and will continue to be a terrific way to become an educated consumer. Nothing beats browsing around when you want to buy something. The more you learn HOW to use it effectively, the better tool it becomes to meet your varying needs. For the time being, that alone is worth the time spent traveling around the classified advertisements.

Oh, by the way. I didn't really make any money in this transaction. It cost me about $1000 net to buy, then sell the unit. If you compare that with renting a crummy beat up Class C motor home from RV America, I guess I did OK. Of course, I didn't count the time value of the money being tied up for six months, but that is really fairly tiny on $40,000.

Overall, I think I will try this whole approach again. You see I have this boat to sell. It's just too small for ocean travel and I prefer to get a motor-sailer to a ski boat now that I live on the ocean....

Self-promotions dep't

Thanks, David for your insights as always. As usual, I have been busy writing. Two articles appeared in today's Computerworld. The first is a review of Netscape's Communicator 4.5 software ("Netscape improves browser Email, but adds complexity"). The second is a review of Real Networks G2 and Microsoft Net Show streaming technologies ("Still Rough Waters").

David Strom
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