That Green Car: Winning And Losing At Your Own Auction

Mike Smitka
by Mike Smitka

Jack Baruth has a very thoughtful post on selling his green stick, apparently an Audi. (See No Fixed Above: Stick it to ’em.) Here I delve into his logic as a devil’s advocate.

A key observation throughout his post is that most (newish) used cars move through dealerships, and for many there is an auction through a Mannheim or Adesa in between the trade-in and the used car lot. The same is true in Japan: the graphic above is of a car auction in Osaka, though on-site buyers sit at computers with a huge display of the two virtual “lanes” with no audible action. (For more see my post on a June 2014 visit at Auto Auctions, Japanese Style.)

1. Now you and I may want a stand-out color, but I think if Jack talked to marketing people, this blandness comes from careful study of what color choices consumers make – not from dealers and auctions. After all, there remain regional differences in color preferences across the US, and particularly for high-end cars there’s a significant bespoke demand. Dealers only see a small and potentially unrepresentative slice of the market. Furthermore, color decisions have to be made well before the start of production, long before dealers get a chance to order. Things can and do go wrong in paint shops (I’ve been through BMW Spartanburg with PPG as guide, gloating over a problem their rival BASF was having). Things get tested in advance. Color choices must be made on a predictive basis.

As it happens, there’s a good history of the professionization of colorists, of how such predictions are made: Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s book, The Color Revolution, MIT 2012. She spoke at the Business History Conference a few years back at the Hagley Museum outside Wilmington; DuPont was central to mass-market cars being available in color, and their museum has some wonderful examples. Be warned, though: a lot of her book is about the fashion industry and about the technical side of developing color systems and color cards, and on experimental psychology with color perception, and not just the impact of wartime camouflage experts bringing their skills to Earl Harley’s design studios where they could play with DuPont’s new Duco paints.

2. Back to used cars. I think Jack argues that the variance of niche markets is high. Jack was fortunate in that he got a “high” draw, finding that match with someone else who really wanted a stick shift in a green package. High variance means that when you may have the opposite experience when you try to sell your pink Cadillac – wasn’t that a Mary Kay cosmetics thing? – and you may get a bad draw. Indeed, the only pink Caddy I know is used purely for its decorative value, such as that is, parked outside the Pink Cadillac cafe in Fancy Hill, Virginia. That use surely reflects a low market value, not a high one – be warned!

3. Jack is very correct in noting that dealerships need to turn their inventory. What he fails to point out is that he personally bore the same costs. So let’s detail those:

  • Jack surely continued to insure his car,
  • he accumulated (pro-rated) property tax and paid various annual registration fees,
  • he lost the use of the part of his garage in which it sat,
  • he lost the opportunity of having that new drive he wanted today rather than months from now,
  • he continued to face the slow but inexorable depreciation from which all cars suffer, and
  • he had to personally put in time first marketing his car and then acting as his own salesman.

Now personally Jack may have had fun being a used car salesman, and playing with Craigslist and similar services, so those weren’t costs, they were benefits. Would that be true for you? Particularly if it takes 6 months to sell your Pink Cadillac? And if you can’t sell your old wheels immediately, the other costs add up: the longer you wait, the lower the net price you are actually charging.

A dealer sitting on an inventory of 200 cars can’t ignore such costs. You shouldn’t ignore them either, and you may not be so lucky in making a good match.

4. Indeed, I suspect the buyer of Jack’s car must have had money to burn: if you are lusting after a lime green car, why would you tell the seller that? Instead you’ll make a lowball bid: when markets are thin, the buy-sell (ask-offer) spread is high. You can find a bargain if you’re patient as a buyer, and are good at bluffing when you’re holding a losing hand. You can lose a lot if you’re impatient as a seller, and not a good horse trader.

5. Conclusion: Jack offered one anecdote of coming out well in a thin market. Here’s mine of doing not so well, shopping for a vehicle with niche specs on a Chevy Cruze early this year.

Sticks aren’t popular, and for a daily drive in DC they were less popular than dealers had hoped – I know why, having made a day trip from the mountains of Virginia into stop-and-go traffic in my Cruze. My guess is that the dealer may well have accepted them as part of their allotment (standard factory “push” marketing, where dealers must accept unpopular combinations of features). So even though we made it clear that a stick was what we wanted, we also made it clear that we weren’t going to hang around if they tried to get a premium from us. We got what appeared to be a very good price, I spent quite a bit of internet time checking things out. Our hand was weakened a little when we didn’t want black, not many in inventory, but we were OK with a couple different colors [green and blue but not dark blue] and there were enough around. So we didn’t have to give back anything at that point.

When we went to pick up the vehicle and saw the actual interior, it was clear from our faces that it was no go. Black. Not just black, but some sort of textured “cloth” surface. And all the cars they had were that same black. All our negotiating power disappeared: instead of getting a better price than with an automatic, we ended up handing back a chunk of the margin, though we still paid less that what any of the other dealers we visited asked for. (They had to make a dealer trade, so out of pocket costs may have eaten up that difference.)

So thin markets are thin markets, patience and negotiating skills matter. But those niche cars are out there. You don’t have to pay to be bland, but it does carry risk.

Mike Smitka
Mike Smitka

Mike Smitka is an economist at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He's been a judge of the Automotive News PACE supplier innovation awards since they began in 1994. His household's vehicles are a 2014 Chevy Cruze, a 2013 Honda CR-V and a 1988 Chevy pickup. Find his auto industry course at <a href="">Econ 244</a>; he also blogs with David Ruggles at <a href="">Autos and Economics</a>.

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  • Madanthony Madanthony on Sep 06, 2014

    I bought a bright yellow Ford Ranger back in July 2006. It was a leftover with a July 2005 build date. It was also pretty much the only vehicle near me equiped the way I wanted (4wd extended cab xlt - everything else was either a stripper or fully loaded). I traded it in, and a few days later a friend of mine saw it back on the road with a logo from the dealer I traded it into. So it may have sat on the lot for a long time when it was new, but it sure didn't sit long used despite it's unusual color.

  • Eiriksmal Eiriksmal on Sep 08, 2014

    I got distracted by the Ein poster on the wall and, er, didn't really see how this plays much of a devils' advocate to Mr. Baruth's earlier article. It did have strong wafts of Mr. Ruggles coming off it, the barely-hidden "all private car sales are bad and scary--visit your local dealership today!" which is odd, 'cause I've skimmed Mr. Smitka's writings on his (very interesting) blog and not found him to share his fellow economists's sentiments.

  • Lou_BC Another way to look at this is the upgrading of hardware and software. ...............The average length of car ownership is 10 - 12 years ....................The average lifetime ownership of a cell phone is 2.5 years. ................................................................... My phone will remain up to date, my vehicle won't. Especially if you buy a new "end of run" model.
  • TheEndlessEnigma "...we could be seeing a foundational shift in how Americans and car buyers see Stellantis products." yeah, I view Stellantis products as being off the cross-shop list. Stellantis is doing an excellent job of killing the Chrysler and Dodge brands and turning Jeep into something it isn't.
  • 2manyvettes 495 hp in a base C8 is more than enough. 800+ hp in a ZR1 is not worth the extra $60k (plus dealer markups). Unless the buyer is going for bragging rights. I remember when the C7 Grand Sport came out, and a reviewer got his hands on one and put it on the track at Lime Rock. His conclusion? Save yourself $15k and skip the Z06 and get a Grand Sport.
  • MaintenanceCosts Last year, I rented a closely related Audi A3. The overwhelming impression was of cheap build quality, although the drive wasn't bad. It had ~45,000 miles and the sunroof sunshade and passenger side power window were already not working correctly. Lots of rattles, too.
  • Lou_BC As others have pointed out, some "in car" apps aren't good or you pay for upgrades. My truck did not come with navigation. It was an expensive option. There's a lame GM maps app that you need to subscribe to "in-car" data. The map does not give you navigation other than to tell you where restaurants and gas stations are located. I'd want Android auto since I already pay for the phone.