July 27, 2011, 10:29 AM

Smartphone access proved itself when buying a car

But a mobile site or app would have been better.

Lead Photo

It takes some pinching and zooming to find the log-in box on a non-mobile optimized web site viewed on a smartphone.

Buying a car this time around was a far better experience compared to the time I bought a used 1974 Pontiac Ventura, in part because of a smartphone. And because that high-school kid who tore up the gravel roads of rural Illinois didn’t own the Honda Civic I just bought.

I used the Carfax service, which checks a vehicle identification number against public motor vehicle records to generate a history for a car. The report shows the number of previous owners, where the car has been titled and any service records automobile dealers submitted to Carfax. It’s a handy e-commerce site for car shoppers. Many dealers provide a free Carfax report, but I was in negotiations with a private seller. If I wanted to use Carfax, I had to pay. For $44.99 I bought access to five vehicle reports, realizing I might evaluate several cars before making a decision.  And I did it all on my smartphone.

However, I hesitated to do so because Carfax does not offer a mobile commerce site or app. The only app it offers is for dealers. Without an app or mobile-optimized web site that meant accessing Carfax’s e-commerce site on my iPhone. Let’s just say it worked and I was able to generate a report for the Civic, but it wasn’t the smartphone-friendliest of sites.

One reason is that the e-commerce site has to be shrunk to fit on the iPhone screen. I had to zoom in to find the log-in button. Then, of course, came typing my user credentials. But the most tedious aspect had to be typing in the 17-digit string of numbers and letters that constitute a vehicle identification number. Immediately upon seeing the box for the VIN I looked for a button that would activate the phone’s camera to scan the VIN. The dealer app, which requires a dealer account, enables scanning. Carfax’s competitor, AutoCheck, also has a dealer-only app with this feature. But not the Carfax e-commerce site. Ask someone who’s had to type in a string of numbers and letters via a smartphone, switching back and forth between the alphabetical and numerical keyboards. OK, so it didn’t kill me.

As it turned out, I needed only one report. I received what I paid for: reassurance. The Civic had a clean title with no accidents and verified low mileage.

Offering a consumer a mobile app that could scan VINs would be an asset and improve the mobile experience for Carfax users. That said, the lack of an app or mobile-optimized web site did not deter me from using my smartphone to conduct commerce. My motivation to lock in the deal outweighed the inconveniences along the way. 

 

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