The Confusion of Car Buying

I bought a new (used) car this week and was struck by how complicated this process remains. I’m not a shopper by nature, so the car-buying process can feel excruciating. I don’t negotiate for the book I buy at Target. Why does the expectation still exist that I should do so for a car? The same issue exists for home buying. While I can understand the subjectivity of home prices (i.e., few homes are exactly the same), I fail to understand why prices vary so greatly between dealers, particularly since one can easily compare similar vehicles between lots.

This issue leads me to the car salesmen. And yes, it’s still salesmen for the most part because in my 15+ years of driving, I’ve only worked with one saleswoman on a car purchase. Such individuals sadly fit the stereotype of their profession more frequently than one would like to believe. Characteristics can include aggressiveness (working on commission), condescension (what does a woman know about cars), and over-the-top friendliness (stay out of my personal space, please).

Car Language

Such qualities are not limited to this group alone, but it does make for interesting language. For example, while patiently waiting for my paperwork (why does it take so long?), I noticed a sales call script pinned to the wall. In this instance, the script assumed the caller was inquiring about a specific vehicle and encouraged the salesman to insinuate that the vehicle may no longer be available but that he would check on it. Since it might take some time, give me your name and number and I’ll get back to you. In today’s information society do you really expect me to believe that it takes more than a couple of minutes to access a dealer’s inventory and see if the vehicle is still available?

The script continued on in a similar vein for the follow-up call, but it totally matched my experience except mine happened online. The dealer I worked with has an online site and is set up to let one request an internet quote. I did so, specifically asking for the price of the vehicle and the vehicle’s history (e.g., trade-in, auction, etc.). Here was the response I got back:

My name is X, I am the Internet Sales Manager for Y. Thank you for the recent inquire. We are committed to making your purchase an easy and enjoyable experience. Here’s how it works.

* We will find the right vehicle for you.
* Provide you with great value and all the information you need to make an informed decision.
* Schedule a convenient time for you to come in, test drive and take delivery of your new vehicle.

In order for this to happen I need the opportunity to talk to you. I can be reached at (xxx) xxx-xxxx or by responding to this email. Or just come in and visit me in . I would love to get you all the information that you need to help you find exactly what you want.


Internet Sales Manager

As you can see, this email didn’t answer any of my questions. I sent another email, again requesting the details I had asked for earlier. I received a response, with the actual information, the morning after I’d already purchased the vehicle.

So why did I continue to work with this dealer? They had the car I wanted. The closest similar car was over 200 miles away. So I compromised. I did things the old-fashioned way and went into the dealership and met with the antithesis of most car salesman—polite, relatively non-pushy and clearly more interested in working than the other salesman sitting around the office telling jokes.

Change the Experience

All told, this experience took a significant portion of my day and left me wondering how this process hasn’t streamlined itself over the years. We’ve made it easier to buy just about everything. From online stores like Amazon to self-checkout stands at the grocery store, we’ve found ways to may the buying experience more simple. And yet, things like buying a car, and the language surrounding it, remain unclear and complicated.

Perhaps I’m one of those people who doesn’t like the art of negotiation, so I fail to get any pleasure out of the process. Usually, my negotiating goes like this: I research the vehicle, determine a fair market price, then counter with that number if the dealer offer is higher. If he doesn’t match, I walk away. For you negotiating experts who are shaking your heads in dismay, ask yourself how much money you’re losing (I’m self-employed) by spending hours bargaining. Do you always save more than you lost in time spent?

Alternative Buying

I’d posit that car dealers as individuals are missing an opportunity to set the standard in their industry. Saturn does it to an extent with it’s no-haggle approach (you pay what’s on the sticker), and I know of other non-Saturn dealers who do the same. As a whole, however, the bulk of the industry remains focused on posting a price that few customers ever pay and then engaging in the back and forth with the customer.

I may be in the minority, but if you combined consistent customer service with straight-forward pricing, I’d go back to the same dealer again and again. In such environments, language becomes easier, more clear. One doesn’t need call scripts or crappy sales tactics to “lure” in customers. The experience speaks for itself. And let’s be honest, how many of you really enjoyed your last car buying experience?


4 Responses to “The Confusion of Car Buying”

  1. June 13, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Wow, very timely – I’m going to be purchasing a vehicle in the next month or two.

    My sentiments match yours re: bargaining with car salesmen. My neighbor is a car salesman and sold me my current vehicle. I couldn’t believe the amount of money that I saved by simply saying “no” repeatedly. Buy why does it need to be that way?

    I like your bargaining protocol. It is similar to an approach that is advocated by one of the “tightwad” books I have. A while back they suggested finding three or four dealers with the vehicle you want, faxing each of them your offer, and instructing them to leave a message if they can accept that offer. You then simply buy from the first one who calls back and says “yes” to your answering machine/cell phone/Grand Central or whatever. No face time with dealers, no “asking the manager”, no sweat!

  2. June 16, 2008 at 3:48 am

    Great post, Britt.

    You can actually buy a car online (on sites like Cars.com), but how many people actually do this?

    The method of car buying which prevails in America (haggling with those smarmy, aggressive salesmen in dealer showrooms) is actually a legacy of the way Henry Ford and others set up their national distribution systems.

    They found (in those low tech days long before the internet) that the most profitable and efficient way of selling cars was to establish networks of local dealers, and have them operate as autonomous businesses, with their own incentives to make a profit.

    Multi-year contracts with dealers were locked in, and dealerships are contractually committed to accepting and selling a certain quota of cars each year, many years in advance.

    Unfortunately for us consumers, this has evolved into the car-buying nightmare we have all come to dread, where blatant, pushy, and often deceptive tactics are the norm.

    Even with the internet, don’t look for this to change anytime soon, because the legal relationship between most manufacurers and their dealers is so rigid, complex, and long-term that it has a maddening inertia all its own.

  3. 3 Britt
    June 20, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    @Shannon: “No” is the best word in the English language when buying a car. Say no to the extended warranty, the rust-proofing, fabric protector, etc. Surprisingly I found that if you make it very clear you won’t even consider the add ons, they move through them quickly.

    @Joe: I’ll be curious to see how our changing driving habits will impact current dealer contracts. For example, what happens when Ford, Chevy, and Dodge dealers cut back on their orders for the largest SUVs and pickups? Part of me suspects that these recent events will either make or break the Big Three.

  4. 4 AJY
    June 23, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    I agree- Auto Dealers need to be concerned with the overall experience their customers are receiving- and whether their customers are happy with the decisions they made to purchase from these particular dealers. Anything that can be done to make the experience more rewarding and less tiresome is the right move in my opinion. I enjoyed reading this post.

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