Fun times at Avis, after the Zipcar purchase

In a week of strange bedfellows announcing mergers, the news that Avis was purchasing Zipcar hardly seemed out of place.

Many cried that this was the equivalent of the Empire purchasing the Rebel Alliance, and Steven Pearlstein said that this was exactly the sort of anti-competitive merger that courts ought to discourage.

He wrote:

The only way for Avis to realize its over-promised cost savings will be to force Zipcar to consolidate the two operations and become more like Avis in everything it does. Eventually, all the old Zipcar executives will be fired or will migrate somewhere else. Auto purchasing will be centralized, as will the pickup points… Oh, sure, Avis executives will say how they respect Zipcar — its culture and its way of doing business — and promise to preserve it. But a year down the road when it comes to some decision in which they will have to forgo some cost savings or some revenue increase in order to maintain those differences, the decision will be to do it the “Avis” way. And that will be it: Zipcar as we know it will be history.”

But is the Avis way really so different from the Zipcar way?

I swung by the downtown DC headquarters of both companies to compare.

The Zipcar headquarters are brightly colored and quirky. The lobby sports bright furniture — an orange couch, white leather chairs, a small box of synthetic grass. There is a funny poster depicting a band riding on a bus with all their instruments, looking far from gruntled. “Sometimes you just need a car,” it reads.

There used to be an office cat, but it found a home with one of the employees. A cat was a friendly presence, but the office reflected that having a cat in the office when cats were supposed to be kept in their carriers in the cars themselves might set a bad precedent.

In the part of the office that can be glimpsed from the lobby hangs a yellow Unicorn Crossing sign. In one of the conference rooms stands a Christmas tree, covered in white lights. Zipcar is a fantasia in orange and green. It has all the hallmarks of a fun, upstart company, in spades. 

Meanwhile, over at Avis, the party is just beginning.

The chairs at Avis are a dark maroonish brown, in a sea of scuffed grey tiles. Avis has some of that tuneless saxophone music you only hear at the airport blasting out of a stand trying to sell you XM Radio on the Go.

“AVIS cares,” reads a sign on the wall. “May we help with directions? Please buckle up, adjust your mirrors and drive safely.”

The absence of an Oxford comma is disheartening, but maybe Avis is too busy having a grand old time to worry about small things like commas.

As I wait, an ominous hissing rain-song comes over the XM radio. 

The waiting area for visitors, overlooking the garage where you can pick up your Avis rental, boasts an American flag and a live potted plant.

“Please Remember! Check the car for your personal items,” a sign in the entrance to the garage reads. Beneath are helpful drawings of these items, mostly recognizable. Camera. Laptop. Mobile phone. Suitcase. And a cluster of what appears to be an angry potted plant with a Nike swoosh over it. On closer inspection, I think it is a book, a wrapped gift, and a pipe, but why you would bring a pipe into your Avis rental eludes me. Perhaps that is a throwback to Avis’ fun, quirky, younger days. The Avis employee at the desk is very helpful but has no idea what the object is either, or why it is hovering in the air several inches above the others.

In the back office, where the unicorn crossing should be, hangs a sign: “Rolling Pride… the journey continues!” near a couple of filing cabinets and some Deer Park water.

I wait a while for fun to show up, reading the worried signs Avis has posted for every contingency. “Sorry, no public restrooms. We apologize for any inconvenience. Thank You. -The Management.” “A detail fee may be charged for pets. Thank you. -The Management.”

There are three signs telling you not to smoke. The overall tone of these notices is that of a worried parent who has learned through uncomfortable experience that the kids will try anything not expressly forbidden by a printed sign. This happens to all companies in their time. Judging by superficial appearances alone, fun left the premises a long time ago and did not leave any of its belongings in the car. 

Perhaps the Avis way is the right way. Perhaps the Zipcar dream is the sort of wild, innovative car-sharing fantasia that will not last. After all, Avis is sensible enough to frown on me when I try to rent from it with my debit card, whereas I am a Zipcar member. There is a reason you try to avoid the Zipcar in the lane. When you see a Zipcar driving down the street, the decal is the equivalent of a “STUDENT DRIVER BUT BLASTING VERY LOUD MUSIC” sign. I am not saying that I am a bad driver, but I assume Yield signs are there to indicate that the traffic you are merging into will have to yield for you. I feel convinced that you can turn right on red lights, and sometimes you can drive straight through them, if you close your eyes and wish hard enough. 

Whenever I try to park, total strangers come rushing out of buildings to offer me assistance. “No, turn the wheel the other way!” they shout. “No, the other way.” Not parallel parking, mind you, the kind of parking where you pull very slowly between diagonal lines large enough to accommodate a small aircraft. Recently I wrapped a rental car around a pillar very slowly over the course of half an hour while trying to park it. I dented the door. The pillar had no idea why I was doing this. “I am miles away from you,” it kept shouting. “There is no reason this should happen.” 

If it weren’t for fun upstart companies like Zipcar, I might never get on the road at all. 

Perhaps the Avis way is right.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | January 3, 2013