No Fixed Abode: Give The Customer What He (Doesn't Know He) Wants

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

“Well, I bought that car last night.” Craig has this unnerving habit of simply appearing at my cubicle while I’m trying to do something productive, like texting people or reading random articles from the Last Psychiatrist archive on my phone. He’s a soft-spoken fellow, entering late middle age the same way that I am but not showing nearly as much evidence of blunt trauma, well-compensated in his engineering job but modest in appearance and disinclined to spend money.

Regarding my life and temperament, I like to follow the example of Robert Bly in quoting Cesar Vallejo: “Well, / On the day that I was born / God was sick / gravely.” I suspect that on the day that Craig was born, by contrast, God was in perfect health and settling down with the newest issue of Consumer Reports. About a month ago, Craig started seriously thinking about replacing his 150,000-mile Honda CR-V. It’s been a faithful companion for a freeway commute that takes about an hour in each direction, but even the most prosaic of Hondas eventually reaches a point where the cost of maintenance starts to become a factor. Not in money, necessarily, but in time.

Knowing that I dabble a bit in things automotive, Craig had asked what I thought about the new CR-V. This was a subject on which I was glad to speak, because I absolutely despise the “cute-utes” and will take every opportunity to rooster-block the purchase of one.

After a conversation in which Craig made it absolutely plain that he was not going to even consider buying anything besides a Honda or a Toyota (“Nissans don’t seem very reliable. Kind of risky.”) I decided to forego any suggestions of Hellcats or Huracans in favor of the simplest and most sensible CR-V alternative. “Why not get the new Civic instead?” I suggested. “It’s pretty big, almost Accord size, and you’d have lower costs both at the time of purchase and while you’re operating it.”

“I kind of want the cargo space,” he replied. At the time, dear readers, I did not realize that Craig also owned a Venza and a pickup truck. Had I been aware of that, I’d have moved in for the Civic-sedan kill. But since I didn’t have all the information, I made a fatal error. “The Civic hatchback is coming,” I told him. “You’ll have to wait a bit, but it should fulfill all of your requirements.” Keep in mind that I am no longer in the car sales business, and have not been in the car sales business since the Clinton Administration. (The Bill Clinton administration, in case you’re reading this on the wall of a cave after the 2017 recount, the civil uprising, the food riots, the mass murders, and the “Nineteen Years Of Blood.”)

Had I still been in the car-sales business, I would have never suggested that he wait for anything. I’ll tell you why. “Car people” are perfectly happy to wait for a particular model, trim level, or equipment package to become available. An example of this would be Brother Bark hanging fire on his next purchase until the Focus RS became an option, or my decision back in 2003 to order a 2004 SRT-4 and wait four months so I could get the limited-slip diff.

On the other hand, when Danger Girl decided that she was sick of sleeping on my worn-out Original Mattress Factory tempur-foam-thing from 2009, approximately 36 hours passed before I was at the Tempur-Pedic store spending the approximate price of a Ducati Scrambler on a mattress to replace a mattress that seemed perfectly fine to me. Maybe it did need to be replaced. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being sentimental, as that mattress had more names on it than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Just kidding, sort of. The point is that most of us don’t sit around waiting for the newest Tempur-Pedic or Thermador or Sub-Zero to “drop on the market,” because we don’t have anything like the kind of available mental bandwidth that would be required to make an educated decision on the merits of future products versus those currently available.

Had I thought about it, I would have realized that Craig was no more interested in waiting a few months for a Civic Hatchback than I would be interested in waiting three months for a new model of water heater, and for the same reasons. Most people buy a car on the first day that they go shopping. A significant percentage of buyers never even visit a second dealership. If you think about the last time you bought a washer/dryer combo, chances are that you will not recall visiting a second appliance store. This is in marked contrast to the behavior of, say, a prospective Subaru STi buyer, who will go to four dealers and call ten more even though he’s long-ago decided what color of STi he wants. (It’s blue, by the way.)

About three days after our first conversation, Craig stopped by to tell me that he had some concerns about the longevity of the 1.5-liter turbo in the Civic Hatchback. Even though Craig is a thoroughly reasonable fellow and quite intellectual, I immediately recognized these “concerns” as what Scott Adams calls a “fake because.” Here’s the situation. Craig had already decided to buy a car in the near term. But the Civic Hatchback, which came closest to meeting all of his stated criteria, would not be immediately available. Now, Craig is a sensible, rational person, and therefore he knows at an intellectual level that it makes sense to wait a few months and get the right car. But Craig’s emotional side has already decided to get a car now. In this internal battle of reason versus emotion, reason will lose Every. Single. Time. Because Craig is a human being, and that’s how humans operate.

Thus, the “fake because.” It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: not only has every major Honda powertrain in the company’s history been reliable, on the occasions when there were problems, as with the “glass transmissions” in the six-cylinder automatics a while back, Honda made extraordinary efforts to correct the situation at its own expense far, far outside warranty. There is no reason to think that any Honda engine will be unreliable in the long run. But this “fake because” was all Craig needed to refocus his purchase quest back to the present moment.

“Well, go check out the Accord,” I said. “It’s available right now, and it’s a good car.”

But a dark horse had appeared suddenly in Craig’s car-purchase plans: the Toyota Avalon. Somehow, he had heard that there were serious deals to be had on Avalons. “Thirty-one grand for a loaded Touring,” he said. “That’s a lot of car for the money. And it’s almost a Lexus.” The sheer irrationality of these statements beggared belief. We had just gotten done talking about how he was anxious to minimize his costs, minimize his fuel spend, minimize his maintenance, to the point that he was concerned about whether the Civic Hatchback’s turbo might require replacement before the 150,000-mile mark — and now we’re discussing a car that weighs a half-ton more, that offers half again the power, with massive (and massively expensive) tires, and perhaps two-thirds the effective fuel mileage? And the bit about it being “almost a Lexus.” Craig could afford a Lexus. Everybody I work with can afford a Lexus. Some of them have a Lexus already. This would be like me going to McDonald’s and buying the Double Cheeseburger because it’s “almost a Big Mac.” At that price, who cares?

“Well, go drive the Accord, and drive the Avalon … and drive the Camry, too.”

“The Camry doesn’t seem like much car next to the Avalon.” My glib response — … and the Avalon ain’t much car next to a LS460, which makes exactly as much sense in regards to your original goals — went unsaid, because Craig is a cool dude and if he wants an Avalon there’s actually no harm in it. He can afford an Avalon, he can afford to put gas in it, and when it needs six sparkplugs instead of four at the 100,000-mile mark, I am certain that he will have room on his credit card for the additional cost.

Yesterday, Craig surprised me yet again at my desk. I think I was looking at “Reddit Gone Wild” or something like that. “I drove the Accord EX-L last night, but it seemed pretty basic. Got the Avalon Touring for thirty-one grand,” he said.

“Well done,” I replied, and I meant it. We discussed how sensible the Avalon is in the context of cars like a mutual co-workers’s Dodge Durango R/T, because Craig is the kind of fellow who would respond to an allegation, however lighthearted, of extravagance on his part the same aggrieved way in which I would respond to a suggestion that I made up all the crazy stories about single mothers I tell on this site. We agreed that the Avalon was the right car for him.

I had no trouble agreeing that the Avalon is the right car for Craig, because it is. He has a long commute. He makes a lot of money, at least from a Midwestern perspective. And he’s no longer a spring chicken. It makes sense to have a comfortable car. I applied the same justifications to my purchase of a Town Car back in 2010. I should have bought an Avalon instead; I’d be about nine broken bones below my current count. Truth be told, I kind of like the Avalon. I wouldn’t mind having one now. And as far as I’m concerned, the only car that would have made more sense for Craig than an Avalon would have been a Lexus ES350, extra cost be damned.

Yet notice that at no point in this tale did we see Craig following any of the traditional car-buying processes as the industry understands them. I’m sure Toyota never considered marketing an Avalon to Craig. I’m certain that very few CR-V owners go directly to Avalons; there’s probably a Highlander or something in the middle.

A Honda salesman with a talent for reading minds probably could have sold Craig on a loaded Accord Touring, if he’d known that Craig was an Avalon intender as well as a potential Civic or Accord buyer. Instead, he put Craig in a four-cylinder CVT-equipped Accord, which seems a little tinny compared to the Avalon. I think the Accord Touring makes an outstanding case for itself against the long-wheelbase Toyota; Craig doesn’t need the extra rear-seat room, and an experienced salesman could probably make a subtle pitch for the Accord being a more sophisticated, more interesting, younger car. But that pitch never got made.

There was nothing logical about Craig’s purchase journey, even though Craig himself is one of the most reasonable, rational men you will ever meet. There’s a lesson in there, for those who care to learn it. And it explains why we’re not all driving Civic Hatchbacks, even if we should be.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Dec 03, 2016

    "Now, Craig is a sensible, rational person, and therefore he knows at an intellectual level that it makes sense to wait a few months and get the right car. But Craig’s emotional side has already decided to get a car now. In this internal battle of reason versus emotion, reason will lose Every. Single. Time. Because Craig is a human being, and that’s how humans operate." I expect to get a VR camera in March or so. To process the video and then view it, I'm going to need to upgrade to at least a high end i5 CPU and a GPU that was state of the art a product cycle or two ago, and then a Razer OSVR HDK2 head mounted display for viewing the results. I typically buy out-of-lease computers. Right now I can get an i7 4770 for about $450 and a decent video card for $250. If I wait, though, likely even more powerful computers will show up at PlayItAgainPC, and I'll probably be able to buy a more powerful video card for the same price. Now that's the rational human thinking. The irrational one wants to buy the hardware and start fooling around with VR right now. Since I'm not a gamer, and getting the hardware so I can shoot VR video of cars, I really don't need the hardware till they ship the Vuze. As for the HMD, it has a MSRP of $399 and most places sell it for $360. I almost pulled the trigger last weekend when someone had it for $320, but now Amazon is running it for $300 and I have Prime so shipping is free. They only started shipping the HDK2 four months ago, and it's not likely to get obsoleted in the next four months, so I may go ahead and get that even if I won't be able to use it till I get the upgraded computer. So how much of that is rational thinking and how much is rationalization?

  • Jalop1991 Jalop1991 on Dec 03, 2016

    Jack: "not only has every major Honda powertrain in the company’s history been reliable, on the occasions when there were problems, as with the “glass transmissions” in the six-cylinder automatics a while back, Honda made extraordinary efforts to correct the situation at its own expense far, far outside warranty. There is no reason to think that any Honda engine will be unreliable in the long run." Ohmigod, you are SO wrong. Next time you're in Columbus, ping me--have I got stories for you. In the meantime, look into Honda's VCM situation. It's a customer nightmare that they're continuing despite having lost the class action lawsuit.

    • Itsme Itsme on Dec 04, 2016

      THIS. $4000+ to rebuild the transmission on a TL-S after Acura's ridiculous quote for a fix. I supposed I was lucky that the car lasted 9y and 100k before the transmission blew, but I was expecting more from a Honda.

  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys i was only here for torchinsky
  • Tane94 Workhorse probably will be added to the heap of failed EV companies.
  • Freddie Instead of taking the day off, how about an article on the connection between Black Americans and the auto industry and car culture? Having done zero research, two topics pop into my head: Chrysler designer/executive Ralph Gilles, and the famous (infamous?) "Green Book".
  • Tane94 Either Elio Motors or Aptera Motors.
  • Billccm I think we will see history repeat itself. The French acquired AMC in the 1980s, discovered they couldn't make easy money, sold AMC off to Chrysler. Jeep is all that remained. This time the French acquired FCA, and they are discovering no easy profits. Assume an Asian manufacturer will acquire what remains of Chrysler, but this time Jeep and RAM are the only survivors.
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