Car Buying Is Still a Contact Sport
Internet Gives True Pricing, but Salesmen Get Money Other Ways
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page F06
I haven't had a lot of personal experience with car salesmen, other than the guy at Euro Motorcars in Bethesda who has sold my husband a new car every four years or so as long as I've known him. Besides that, my only other encounters have been with a couple of overwhelmed salespeople we talked to nearly two years ago about buying a Mini Cooper, just when those hyper-popular cars were coming out.
But my lack of exposure to this most stereotyped, most ridiculed profession has left me wondering why car salesmen have such a bad reputation. Is it really deserved?
It probably is, I hear, but not because all car salesmen are unethical or overly pushy or too slick. Certainly some are, but many more used to be far worse. Unfortunately, what also helps perpetuate the bad rap is the increasingly narrow view U.S. consumers have of what shopping should be like.
There are a few basic factors involved in buying a car that easily create discomfort with the buying process. For one thing, cars cost a lot of money, so the possibility of making a mistake puts shoppers on edge, and makes them suspicious. It's also a business in which two different customers could be charged different prices for the same product, which introduces another level of anxiety. Add to that the fact that car dealerships are one of the few remaining areas of retail in which salespeople earn a living from commissions. So just when consumers most don't want to be pressured or pushed, they may well be.
"When people complain about car salespeople, you have to ask if their complaints are actually about the salespeople or about the process which we all need to go through to buy a car," said Chris Denove, a partner at J.D. Power & Associates, a market research firm that closely tracks the auto industry.
Certainly that process has gotten better for the consumer over time because of the Internet. Now many car buyers have lots of information about the car they want to buy even before they walk onto the lot, which makes them more secure and less likely to be taken advantage of, said Charley Smith, chairman of the National Auto Dealers Association. It has also pushed car salespeople to become more knowledgeable about their products, he said.
"The highest users of the Internet correlate to the people who are most happy with the buying experience," Smith said.
The Internet has further equaled the power between the buyer and dealer by making pricing more transparent. Once consumers could find the dealer invoice price online, that figure also began showing up on the window stickers of cars. While some dealers rue the day the Internet emerged, others appreciate the new openness because customers now have a better understanding of the profits involved in selling cars.
"They have a far more reasonable expectation of what a reasonable profit should be," Smith said.
Obviously the industry has an interest in all of us believing that the Internet, combined with dealers' own ethics-related initiatives, has drastically upgraded the honesty and tenor of the car-buying process. And to some degree it has. So why does the reputation persist? Because there's more to the story.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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