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Here’s a little story about the power of the new consumer. He’s the guy who used to have no power – no information, everything kept a secret from him, all confused about what happened behind the scenes – but today is ripping the roof off traditional real estate models, confusing REALTORS, service providers and vendors worldwide.

Pay close attention, because this is the guy who’s going to make your life a lot more complicated when you ask him to buy your services!

Our story begins one cloudy Saturday in Peabody, where yours truly was shopping for a new car. My current lease was set to expire, and after three months of internet research and comparisons, it was time to “do the open house” and actually drive a few models. Arriving at the Acura dealer, I shook hands with a nice, young salesman – well dressed and well mannered. Little did I know that – appearances aside – I was going to sell the car to myself.

As the story usually goes, we sat in the car we thought we were going to buy first. Coming from a larger model for the last two years, I wasn’t overly excited about the size. We looked at the SUV (fuel prices are dropping) but it was overkill for my needs. Then, turning the corner in the showroom, we saw it. Our next car.

Just like the buyer who falls in love with “their next house” we had the same emotional experience. The colors were just right. The features were perfect. It was the right size. And it had found the only sunbeam peeking through the clouds to sit beneath.

And, of course, it was way above our anticipated price.

We took the test drive “anyway” because that’s what star-struck consumers do. I thought to myself, I’m in trouble now; it’s more money than I wanted to spend, but the salesperson already saw my emotional reaction to it! Get out the checkbook.

But then things took a turn for the better – speaking as a consumer, that is: As we test drove the car, I asked a few questions of the salesperson, who told us he had been selling Acuras for a while and cars in general for a few years. Interestingly, each question I asked was met with non-specific answers. Not exactly the specs. Not entirely the features explained. Rarely a benefit attached. I wondered if this salesperson had really ever been in this model before.

I was really trying to be “sold” this car; I gave every opportunity for the salesman to tell me why I should spend more money; why the car met my needs; why it had features that would match my lifestyle; why it had solid resale value. Every question was an “open invitation” to sell me the car. Every response, a complete miss. Not even a near hit.

It reminded me of an open house where it wasn’t really the “listing agent” who was present. The salesperson could repeat what the “sticker” or listing sheet said about the product; but he really didn’t know the “why and how” it was the right car for us. He didn’t try to “sell me” the car because somewhere, someone had told him that customers don’t want to be “sold.” Interesting.

Back at the dealership, the finance dance began. Armed with my Blackberry, I had already bookmarked the Acura website with the MSRP, plus saved a PDF with real pricing (the MSRP versus the dealer cost). I also had researched the current rebates the dealers were receiving that month. I was the modern consumer. And I was about to do battle with the modern (or so I figured) salesperson.

Salesman’s first volley: The sticker price.
Matthew returns fire: Internet price.

Salesman fires back: This model is in high demand.
Matthew displays Wall Street Journal headline on Blackberry: Auto Dealers slump. Bailout?

Salesman offers a price: Slightly higher than anticipated.
Matthew reads aloud: rebates, discounts and dealer cost from Blackberry.

Salesman sits stunned.

A few more rounds – all polite but increasingly frustrating for the salesperson (I was having fun, actually) we came up with a lease price. It was more than I had originally intended to spend, but it less than an unarmed consumer would otherwise have paid sitting in my chair.

We had a deal; shook hands, waited for the finance manager to come out and try to sell us clear-coating (Aw… gee… the car already had the clear coat on it…) and we left. The plan was to pick up the car on Monday night.

Monday rolls around and I place a call to the finance manager before heading to the dealer. Since I have to trade my existing lease back to the dealer (next door to them, by the way – don’t you love consumer choice!) I wanted to make sure the financing was in place before I ended up without my current car and no deal on the new one.

Finance manager: Oh, glad you called. Hmmm. It seems that they have offered you financing at the “different” rate because of tight credit and your current rating. It’s still good, but not the best price we had discussed, so the payment will be slightly higher.

Matthew replies: Hmmm. No, that doesn’t sound right at all. I’m absolutely the best customer to walk through your door this year. I put a substantial capital-cost-reduction amount down; My income is solid and well documented. I own my home and I have never missed a payment on anything in a decade. By the way, what credit score did they tell you they used?

Finance manager: Um, oh, well, let me see here. They said it was a [insert okay number].

Matthew says: Not a chance. Hold on a moment. (The sound of clicking can be heard as Matthew uses his computer). Ok, I’m logged into my Washington Mutual credit card account, where my FICO score is available on screen in real time. I’m going to read out the last six months to you: [reads amounts significantly higher, for the last six months]. Do you want me to fax or email this to you so you can re-discuss with your finance group?

Finance manager: [Total silence.]

Matthew: Hello?

Finance manager: Um, sure. Fax it to me please. I’ll see what I can do.

Matthew: Great! (keystroke – sends it right over the web). Call me back when you have this corrected.

An hour later, Finance Manager called me back. He said there must have been some confusion at the finance group. They must have looked at some “other” score or a partial reading or something. I let him babble on, not believing a word of it, until he got to the point: I was financed at the super-preferred rate at the payment we discussed when I was there two days ago. All set – just come on down and get the car.

I hung up the phone and felt elated. For the first time in decades buying cars, I felt like “the little guy” finally had won. I also felt mad that anyone else would have been taken for a ride – for twenty or thirty bucks more a month – because they didn’t know how to get their credit scores or couldn’t do it quickly using the internet. These guys actually tried to “push the payments” believing I was un-powered, that I couldn’t dispute their “credit check.” It must happen all the time. How many car – or home? – payments today are possibly higher than they should be only because the consumer didn’t know how to find their own credit scores (or read them)?

The good news, though, is that it will become incresingly less likely for these sneaky tactics to work on the modern consumer. They are just like me – wirelessly connected to pricing data, instantly able to fact-check critical numbers like credit scores. Today, I drive a new Acura RL. It’s a dream machine. High tech. Comfortable. Foreign manufactured. Great on gas. And this morning I got the bill for the first payment. It was the price that I wanted; the price I defended; the price that was made possible because I was a modern consumer with the power of the internet.

Watch out! There are more of us out there – buying cars and homes – than you think!

– Matthew