Web shoppers appreciate the vehicle configurator applications found on automaker and third-party sites, because they show all of the equipment combinations you can get in a car. Dealers seem to universally dislike them, because they create combinations that may exist in theory but aren't available in real life.

"Just because a website says it's available, that doesn't mean that a car exists in widespread production," warned Herb Chambers Infiniti’s Scooter Womack. Manufacturers produce mostly the model variations they expect to sell.

"I really shocked a guy who knew exactly what he wanted, but when I pulled it up [on the computer], I showed him there was zero in inventory in the entire country," he said. He then spent 30 minutes calming down the customer.

Mark Perleberg of NADAguides.com recounts how his sister, living in Arizona, wanted to purchase a white Nissan Xterra SUV without a moonroof. She built such a model on Nissan.com. But then she discovered, “No dealer in Arizona had that car," said Perleberg. “What she wanted was so rare that she ultimately gave up and took what she could get."

You can always special order a specific configuration, but don’t expect as good a deal on a made-to-order car as you would on one that has been taking up valuable floorspace in a dealer showroom. “If you're flexible -- by not having to have this exact car, but being willing to accept something close -- you're going to get a better price, as well,” said Jupiter Research’s Julie Ask. Dealers prefer to sell from their inventories, because they have already paid for the cars sitting on their lots.

Dealers also possess a thorough knowledge of various lease and finance packages available. "Not only does your interest rate depend upon your credit rating, it also depends on the strength of the [dealer's] business manager who will be handling your business with the bank," said Womack.

What's more, dealers are plugged into regional discounts and limited offers that may not readily appear online. "There are regional discounts. Or, as a new college graduate, you may qualify for a discount,” said Ask. Therefore, “the dealer is probably going to be the best source of information on the final, final price. It's hard to understand all of the special offers and deals that you may qualify for using the online process."

"I find that customers, for the most part, believe the Internet over a well-qualified salesperson or sales manager, which is very hard to deal with,” said Jeff Davis, general manager of Mercedes-Benz dealer Chambers Motorcars of Boston. “Some customers will spend a tremendous amount of time trying to chase something they've found on the Internet and become upset about how the whole process is going. The solution is that people have to learn to synthesize the information that they find through dealerships and what's online, and not always try to hang onto the one shred of evidence that tells them what they want to hear.”

After all, said Ask, “It's too big a decision. The Internet is only part of the process."

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