I have a conflict-avoidant personality. I never lose my temper and I hardly ever engage in verbal jousting (never mind confrontational conversation). That’s why I wander around new car lots on Sundays. The dealership is closed, locked and silent; I can browse in pleasant solitude. Otherwise, conflict is inevitable. I can count on my fingers the number of times in my life that I got so angry my legs started shaking. Half of those instances occurred in car dealerships and that ain’t right.
Of course, this avoidance strategy runs counter to my pistonhead predilections. During GM’s “Hot Button” OnStar promotion/gimmick, I couldn’t help myself: I pulled in to the local Chevy dealer to try my luck at winning a new car. Even before I put my foot to tarmac, a salesman sucker-fished my face (Aliens style). I almost drove away right then and there. But I didn’t.
When I relayed the purpose of my visit, the salesman didn’t even try to hide his disappointment. In fact, I was a dead customer walking. I’m not sure which was worse— the initial attack or the subsequent invisibility. Either way, I enjoyed the experience almost as much as my last visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
You want to talk about hot buttons? Whenever a car salesman approaches me with that stupid happy grin– as if I’m the first human being he’s seen in seven months of solitary confinement– I feel my normal sang froid melt. Of course he’s smiling. I’m chum in his shark tank.
Of course, like most of you, I consider myself to be a lot higher in the food chain. As an enthusiast, I have an excellent grasp of automotive facts and figures: engine options, competitors, warranties, etc. So why do car salesmen try to Lord it over me, even after I demonstrate superior knowledge? It’s who they are. It’s what they do.
And it’s not for me. People like us, people who devour buff books, surf car sites and share a passion for automobiles simply cannot go to a car dealership for the sheer fun of it. The marketing gurus suggest that visiting a dealer should be as enjoyable as hanging out at Borders. I’d rather spend 45 days in the Black Hole of Calcutta than 20 minutes at a Chevy dealer.
There is name for this pain: ultimate transaction price. Walking into a car dealership, no one knows how much it costs to buy any given vehicle. Not the customer and not the salesman, whose job it is to add as much profit as possible to the deal.
So sales pressure is applied, and then applied again. Surreptitious administrative fees get tacked on in dark corners of contracts— well after customers have supposedly negotiated the “final price.” The entire system creates an environment of distrust, dishonesty, and confrontation.
Me? I don’t discuss numbers. When salesmen demand “make me an offer,” I don’t reply. They plead with me as if in pain. “Make me an offer. Come on.” I can’t. I don’t. Instead, I reply with fierceness that surprises even me. “If you want to sell this car, YOU give ME a price.” They never do. The deal goes nowhere, and we part ways. And I put another year on my tired old beater.
Last year life thunked me on the head: my wife needed a minivan. This had to be done. Salvation arrived in the form of an auto broker. For a few hundred dollars fee, he did all the backbreaking negotiating with the dealership for a new Toyota Sienna minivan. We paid an astounding $2k less than what I was prepared to pay based on my research. And I do a lot of research. Huh, I mused, even Toyota has wiggle room for dealmakers.
Unfortunately, I still had to go to the dealership to sign the papers. It was an utterly simple process that took three excruciating hours filled with sales pitches for additional service agreements. All this after the end of the so-called negotiation process. I was living a scene from the Sopranos. “I’m in the back office of a dealership, man. I’m not agreeing to anything.” They tried to wear me down. But I held steady. No extras.
Of course, some dealerships do promise a more honest approach. CarMax and Saturn, for example, are known for not submitting their customers to the auto-buying equivalent of root canal surgery. But these user-friendly experiences still come at a cost, financial or otherwise.
Automakers devote huge marketing dollars to reach reliable bill-paying customers like me. Yet they don’t understand that the car ain’t the issue. The car is fine. The car I understand. The dealership is what I abhor. Fix that sorry, broken, demonic institution and I will replace my cars more often. It’s that simple.
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Twice we've bought from the nearest Honda dealer, and twice it's been a pleasant experience. We arranged financing through our CU beforehand, and we told the salesman that fact up front. Our CU has a computerized database of car prices and tells us how much below sticker we should be paying. It also tells us -supposedly- dealer's cost, though I've never been sure how accurate that info is. We looked at the model we were interested in, test drove it, and decided we liked it. We reminded the salesman that we had our financing arranged and we simpy needed the dealer's best price. Both times we were presented with numbers that were at least a thousand below sticker. Could we have gotten another $500 or more off the sticker by negotiating the better part of the day? Perhaps. When you figure the differnce in monthly paymets, another $500 or even $1K only makes a small monthly difference. How much of our time do we really want to spend haggling? Does a few dollars a month really justify spending most of the day in a dealership? It was a reasonable deal - not a great deal - meaning we were presented with a good but not great price, and the dealership made a good but not great profit. What's wrong with doing business that way? Sure, the salesman tried to interest us in extras, and since he'd been polite and reserved the whole time, we let him go through his schpeel. Each time we said we were not interested, he dropped it and moved to the next item. He felt he'd tried to make a bit more profit, and we at least got to hear about the various extras available (who knows, maybe we do want one or two of those items). That part of the excercise took 15 minutes. The only thing that has ever stopped us from buying a Toyota is the dealership experience. Our local Toyota dealer is staffed by sharks in plaid suit coats and white shoes with gold pinkie rings who swoop down on customers before they get out of their car. Great product, terrible buying experience. We'll stick with our local Honda dealer.