"No One Will Ever Buy a Car on the Internet"

File under: Someday they’ll be sorry they said that in print.

In the early days of e-commerce, when many of my audiences were deeply in the stage of the grief process known as “denial,” executives in a variety of industries tried to wish away the revolutionary (though ultimately liberating) potential of the Internet to re-create stable, musty, inefficient old supply chains. I wish I had written down more of the odd deflections I used to hear, but they included classics such as “Our customers prefer to interact with us using traditional channels,” (though no one who said this had ever asked the customers).

One of my favorites, usually a non-sequitur, was that “No one will ever buy a car on the Internet,” meaning that e-commerce might be fine for things like software and books, but since the Internet was a digital channel, it had nothing to say to producers of physical goods. That is, since cars couldn’t be delivered over the Internet, somehow no part of the transaction could take place there. This was a strange prediction, always made by people who didn’t sell cars in the first place.

As we know, these days many if not the majority of car buyers in the U.S. do some or all of their research, negotiating, and ordering on-line. That is, people do buy cars on the Internet, and it turns out to be a very good way of buying them at that. Ten years later, I was pleased to see (see “GM, eBay to Test Online Car Sales,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 11, 2009) that one side-effect of the meltdown of the U.S. auto industry is a greater willingness to embrace the disruptive. In a new joint venture between eBay (which has long been in the car business) and GM, California shoppers can explore the available inventory of dealer vehicles and use eBay to negotiate a price.

Of course the people who said this would never happen have all moved on, and probably wouldn’t admit they were ever so naive. Still, we know.