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.
"Dealer tactics have changed now that they know the customer is prepared," said Rob Gentile, director of auto pricing for Consumer Reports magazine. "They're figuring out different ways to make money."
One of those ways is through high-pressure selling of add-ons like alarms, extended warranties, rustproofing and fabric protection.
"They'll charge you $700 or $800 on an alarm you can get for $200 in the aftermarket," Gentile said.
And even the invoice pricing information customers rely on so heavily now is not necessarily the guarantee people think it is. Gentile said there are all kinds of other manufacturer incentives given to a dealer that might make a vehicle's true wholesale cost considerably lower than what's listed on the invoice statement.
Salespeople, too, are increasingly compensated not just by the commission they get on the sale of a car, but also through monthly bonuses for the volume of cars they've sold and even from manufacturers through occasional incentive programs.
All of this means that the typical consumer who believes he or she is on a level playing field with the salesperson, in fact, often isn't.
Some customers understand that well. "It's gamesmanship, and you're going to get gamed if you're not aware how they operate," said Larry Williams of the District, who was shopping for a new Toyota Prius last week in Arlington.
But it seems to me that the problem with car salespeople is also a matter of mutual denial and lack of acceptance. In the case of car dealers, they don't seem to be given to much introspection. Those I talked to seemed to all say, essentially, "It's not me, it's the other guy" or "It's a few bad apples." What I didn't hear was much recognition that customers are still wary of salespeople in general and that there's work to do to rectify that situation in just about every dealership.
Smith of the National Auto Dealers Association, for example, stressed that the latest industry survey shows 94 percent consumer satisfaction with the buying experience. What he didn't say is that those ratings include satisfaction with the car itself, the price and other factors besides the salesperson.
"People love buying cars, they love having cars," Gentile said. "The act of going in and shopping for a car is not so loved."
The blame is certainly not all on the dealers. Shoppers, too, need to understand the car-selling process better. They need to be stronger about negotiating and just accept that it's a salesperson's job to try to sell you a car.
But shoppers have so little experience these days dealing with commissioned salespeople that even the slightest pressure seems untoward. Today's consumer also expects to have total control of a retail situation, a guaranteed rock-bottom price and absolutely no headaches.
In much of retail today, that's what they get. Buying a car, however, is just different, requiring the help of someone who is more than merely a clerk or an order taker. In return, shoppers need to say what they want, ask more questions, resist being pressured into a premature decision and even learn to tell a salesman to back off if he wants to make a sale.
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