In almost every state, you can't buy a car online from its maker, owing to language in franchise laws that forbids direct sales, written at the behest of auto-dealer lobbyists.
Whether or not that's a good thing, a majority of car buyers now research new cars online well before they ever set foot in a dealership.
And carmakers have come to recognize that consumers like the convenience of online shopping and communicating.
In November 2013, that led GM to create a program for new-car shopping called "Shop-Click-Drive."
Its goal is to let new-car buyers do as much as possible of the shopping and purchase process online, though the sale must still be completed through a conventional dealer.
Now, GM is expanding the program into used cars as well, in part to handle an increasing number of cars coming off three-year leases, as detailed in Ward's Auto.
Bourgeois Chevrolet, Rawdon, Quebec, Canada [photo: RoulezElectrique.com]
The process has three steps: A user first browses inventory listings to find the desired vehicle. Then he or she chooses a dealer who takes part in the program (less than half do) and reserves the vehicle.
Finally, the sale is completed with a visit to the dealership to negotiate financing, complete paperwork, and sometimes endure offers of undercoating, floor mats, and other high-profit dealer-installed options.
The program essentially functions as a lead generator for dealers, similar to online sites that offer information, reviews, and specifications on new cars, and then connect shoppers with nearby dealers who have the desired models in stock.
But GM views its Shop-Click-Drive users as high-quality leads. More than half of them are the greatly-desired "conquest" buyers, who don't currently own a GM vehicle.
The program, says GM North America president Alan Batey, “introduces new buyers to our brands.”
Data from last April, however, indicate that consumer awareness of the Shop-Click-Drive program remains low.
GM's Shop-Click-Drive online car-shopping program sends users to local dealers to complete the sale
Between November 2013 and March 2015, roughly 23,000 vehicles were sold through Shop-Click-Drive. GM sells roughly 2 million vehicles a year in the U.S.
GM hasn't put a lot of advertising and marketing behind the program, though it added a mobile version last April.
But the company refers to it often in discussions of the Tesla Motors direct-sales model, which GM has formally opposed at various state legislative hearings.
Last year, Bryan Roosa, GM's executive director for North American government relations, suggested that the program lets shoppers "accomplish almost the entire transaction online."
Because the ability to haggle over prices is one of the benefits of competition among dealers, shoppers can compare prices among dealers, Roosa said, and then "quickly complete the deal at the dealership."
That differs significantly from the Tesla buying experience GM is fighting against.
Tesla Store Los Angeles [photo: Misha Bruk / MBH Architects]
Shoppers actually buy their Tesla electric car online for a fixed price, and the company will deliver the car to any address they specify.
"Our dealers are our partners," said Roosa during an interview last April. The dealership structure, he said, "is the current system," and "it is not going to change."
So if you dreamed of buying a Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, or GMC vehicle online, you will be disappointed.
Even if you find your desired car online--through Shop-Click-Drive or other programs--you still have to spend two hours or more at your local dealership to get the car.