MT. COMFORT — A freshly reconditioned, used SUV pulled into a massive, brightly lit dome.
The vault’s large door slowly slid shut. A worker manning a computer on the dome’s exterior initiated the high-definition cameras surrounding the vehicle. Soon the pictures would be stitched together online to provide website visitors with a 360-degree view.
It’s how Carvana presents all of the products in its inventory of more than 15,000 used vehicles.
The Phoenix-based online car retailer’s latest 130,000-square-foot facility for inspecting, reconditioning, photographing and storing vehicles is now operating near Mt. Comfort Road and County Road 300N and is expected to soon employ hundreds. The company — whose business model includes home delivery of cars and giant vending machines where cars can be bought like snacks — is aiming to change the way people buy used vehicles.
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As many as 5,000 of those vehicles whose photos will appear online will be processed here, the company has said.
Before heading to the photo dome, vehicles undergo a 150-point inspection and receive any needed mechanical repairs and paint jobs. Amy O’Hara, associate director of communications for Carvana, said the company typically invests about $1,000 into each vehicle’s preparation.
O’Hara said the new Hancock County facility currently operates two lines of about 50 to 60 employees each. When the center reaches full capacity, it will employ about 500, she added.
The dome isn’t Carvana’s only patented photography technology. Vehicles also make their way through what’s dubbed the "hot box." There, a camera-wielding arm extends from a wall and through a vehicle’s open window. Outside, an employee operates the camera to photograph the vehicle’s interior. When the photos are stitched together online, it allows website visitors to toggle a 360-degree, high-definition view as if they were sitting inside the vehicle.
After shots are taken in the dome, an employee heads in with a handheld camera and notes from inspectors on imperfections to snap close-ups that will be available to customers online, O’Hara explained.
Carvana, which started in 2012, invested in its photo technology early on, O’Hara said.
"We knew that if we were going to sell cars online, we had to have perfect photography," she said.
The Hancock County inspection center joins counterparts in Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia and Phoenix, according to a Carvana news release. It increases production capacity to meet growing demand, including the recent market launches in South Bend and Elkhart, where area customers can get as-soon-as-next-day delivery. The company now offers such delivery in 109 markets across the United States.
Customers can also make pickups at one of Carvana’s vending machines. The company has 16, and one recently opened in Indianapolis.
Buying a car online and having it delivered to your home or picking it up at a towering vending machine is a far cry from the traditional model of visiting dealerships and negotiating prices.
Brinton Gray, owner of Gray Auto in Greenfield, said online car sales have impacted his business by forcing him to list his inventory at internet-based prices. In the past, dealerships priced their vehicles and then negotiated with customers. But now, in order to remain competitive, he follows the numbers circulating on the web.
He said dealers list vehicles online at lower prices to move larger volumes, which he understands the desire for. But, he added, that comes at the cost of face-to-face customer service.
That kind of customer service is valuable and shouldn’t be overlooked, Gray continued. He estimated 70 to 80 percent of his clientele is made up of repeat customers and referrals.
"We’re just going to continue to do what we do and try to stay personal and build relationships with people when they come in," Gray said.
The need for internet-based pricing has come with one upside, Gray said, explaining it has allowed him to sell more vehicles to out-of-state customers.
Ron Povinelli of Stanfield Auto Sales in Greenfield said most of the dealership’s business has also been from repeat customers throughout its 18-year history. The online market has had no effect on the company, he said, and he doesn’t expect it to.
"I just don’t think that kind of a business model is going to work in the long run," Povinelli said. "When people make a major purchase like a house or a car, they like to touch it, feel it, experience it."
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”At a glance” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
Carvana inspection center
- 130,000 square feet
- 150-point inspections
- 360-degree, high-definition photography
- Expected to eventually employ about 500