When my sister-in-law was in college in 1982, she worked at a grocery store. That was the year Coca-Cola introduced the talking vending machine. Customers put in their quarters, stood back and listened to a robotic greeting: “Thank you for choosing Coke. Please make your selection.” The trend took a while to catch on in Statesboro, Georgia. My sister-in-law still laughs about the day a woman came into the store in a huff.
“Honey,” she said. “I can’t get this Coke machine to work.” Dee Dee went outside with the woman, who put in her money again. “Thank you for choosing Coke,” the machine repeated. “Please make your selection.” Ignoring the huge buttons marked with each flavor, the woman leaned in and said, “I want a Sprite.”
Coca-Cola discontinued its talking dispensers the following year. I’m not saying that this one woman in Georgia single-handedly brought the world’s largest soda dealer to its knees, but her confusion was symptomatic. The novelty just wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to explain to customers how the machines worked.
Fast forward to 2018, and I start seeing TV ads for Carvana, a dealership whose motto is “The New Way to Buy a Car.” Consumers are told that they can shop for vehicles entirely online and then — get this — pick up the car they want to buy from a vending machine. This is no joke. Carvana started business in 2017 and has since opened several glass towers full of cars.
MACHINE: Thank you for choosing Carvana. Please make your selection.
BUYER: I’d like a 2015 Nissan Maxima.
MACHINE: Please deposit $19,689.99.
Actually, you make the transaction online, with a promise that your loan can be approved in minutes. Incidentally, whenever someone tells you that your loan can be approved in minutes, he is trying to speed things up, so you’ll have more time to pack for debtor’s prison.
Anyway, when you come to pick up your car, someone hands you a giant quarter to put in the slot. A machine “grabs” your car, pulls it down and sends it to a nearby garage, where the doors open and “Voila!” You drive away. Carvana CEO Ernie Garcia III explains that you have seven days to try out the car and return it — no questions asked — for a full refund.
While most dealers let you test drive a vehicle and have your mechanic check it out before you pay, Carvana understands human psychology. Returning unused Halloween candy to Walmart is easy. Coming back to Carvana with your tailpipe between your legs is humiliating. You’re more likely to keep the car.
Especially if you followed the instructions on the commercial and picked out a car “while binge-watching your favorite TV series.” They say a vehicle is one of the biggest investments you make in life, next to your kitchen countertops. Wouldn’t it be a shame to blow this decision because you were distracted by something Big Boo said on “Orange is the New Black”?
I realize that car-buying has changed along with everything else; however, online shopping has an illusion of simplicity and convenience that somehow seems inadequate to the level of attention needed to buy a car. I’ll never forget the day in 1999 when I bought my Toyota Camry. I walked onto the car lot in Durham, North Carolina, and met Ian, an Englishman who spent the whole afternoon riding around with me as I tried out different cars. He was friendly and helpful, and I still remember his prediction that the air conditioning on the Camry I bought from him will “freeze you to death.” Nineteen years later, it still does.
That’s why I cannot stand the CarGurus commercial that plays on television constantly. You’ve seen it. An unshaven man in a wrinkled plaid shirt stands dazed in his room, staring at a month’s worth of work: hundreds of print-outs stuck to one wall and a map criss-crossed with strings on another. He mumbles “Where to find the best deal?”
His wife comes in with her put-together outfit and perky ponytail, horrified at his chaotic system. “Why don’t I help?” she suggests, pulling out her phone. Within seconds, she finds him a low-mileage model in the right color that is priced under market value. “Oooh, I’m beat,” she mocks, dripping with smugness. The old expression “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” comes to mind, and I suspect it applies to cars, too.
Surely there are things in life that can be done in six seconds. Microwaving a muffin. Dialing a number. Answering a Jeopardy question. But buying a car? When I’m ready for my next one, I’ll head to the vending machine, lean in and say, “Can you send Ian down to help me, please?”
Michael Claxton is a guest writer for The Bison. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.