More Car Shopping Thoughts

Everyone has a favorite joke about their profession. Here’s mine.

A frugal widow called her daily newspaper and asked for the obituary department. She wanted the world to know everything about her recently deceased husband. But then she learned the newspaper prints death notices without charge, but obituaries cost a dollar a word.

Her husband had been a good man, but there were limits. “Please print just two words: Herb died.”

The clerk replied, “Yes, ma’am. But there’s a five word minimum. Is there anything you’d like to add?”

She updated her tribute: “Herb died. Buick for sale.”

I love that joke because it captures the assorted ways that the daily newspaper has been an essential part of our lives. The newspaper gives us the news we need. But we’ve also used it to exchange information with one another.

Much has been written about how display advertising losses have imperiled newspapers. Less has been said about how Craigslist decimated the newspaper’s want ads. Display ads have always been sprinkled throughout the newspaper, but a robust classified section was pure profit. Except for the occasional Word Jumble, every square inch of the entire section brought revenue — and readership.

Those days are mostly gone. We pine for the way newspapers used to be, while we peruse the free classified ads available to us online. We might be happy that we found a good deal on a used Buick, especially when the ad includes unlimited photos and voluminous details. But who will then tell us the news that Herb died?

We’re hard-wired to believe that more choices for less cost is always a good thing. For every generation before ours, that was certainly true. But now we’re encountering the natural limits of our choosing facility. “Decision fatigue” makes even simple tasks more difficult to complete.

Too many choices leave us feeling overwhelmed and inadequate, even if we’re being asked only about what toppings we’d like on our lunchtime burrito. The burden grows exponentially when we’re shopping for something as expensive as a used car.

As our fictional widow demonstrates, newspaper ads were necessarily limited. That concision now feels like an attractive feature. Do you really need more than the model year, mileage, price and phone number? That’s enough to start the conversation when comparison shopping.

Car shopping has become amazingly complex for those of us who don’t dare step onto a car lot. Craigslist has plenty of offerings, but not all of them. If you want to be a responsible shopper, you must also check Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and specialty sites that only sell vehicles. I’m sure there must be phone apps and hashtags that are being used to buy and sell things too.

Depending on your determination, you may have to watch all these sources in Portland as well. The newspaper classified section hasn’t gone away completely, so you still have to monitor that, plus windshield placards. If your friends get wind that you’re looking, you could be getting messages and texts about other choices they’ve heard about.

Sellers struggle to stay consistent between these various selling platforms. They are as overwhelmed as the buyers are. They might update the price in one place, but not another.

And each seller has a preferred method of communication. You have to remember who responds best to emails, phone calls, texts, video calls, web forms, or in-app messages. (I guess we should be grateful the FAX machine has fallen out of favor.)

Do all those choices make anything better? If these expanding options are making things better, why do I feel worse? It’s decision fatigue.

In the end, I bought a car from a local fellow who advertised in the newspaper and probably nowhere else. I can’t be sure that I got the best deal, but he also can’t be sure he found the best buyer. At least in that way, he and I came out even.

It wasn’t a Buick. I don’t like the joke that much.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.