Country music is playing on the P.A., and the receptionist is stringing orange and black crepe paper to make the place look Halloweenish. But in the showroom of Cowles Woodbridge Chrysler Plymouth, there's a distinct absence of holiday cheer.
Six salesmen and two teen-aged car fetchers are munching miniature candy bars and arguing about Governor Wilder. It's 7 p.m. on a rainy Monday, and there isn't a single customer in the house.
Ten minutes earlier, there had been exactly one. But as soon as the sales gang saw that she was driving a used Yugo, they knew she'd be iffy.
A Yugo is worth about as much as a used razor blade in trade. The woman wanted $2,000 for her car. Book value was $225. You can pull rabbits out of hats in the auto business, but not rabbits the size of buffaloes. The woman soon sped off in a huff.
So the clock kept ticking, the rain kept falling, the candy bars kept going down the hatch and a cast of thousands kept failing to walk through the door. "It gets like this," said Kevin Druckenmiller, the intense former Marine sergeant who's the sales manager. "But if you let yourself worry about all the customers who aren't here, you'll go crazy."
Kevin Druckenmiller was the reason I was standing at Woodbridge Chrysler Plymouth and barely managing to resist the candy bars.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in which I scalded a Northern Virginia dealership for the terrible treatment it gave a man who had bought a $30,000 car there just a few days earlier. Kevin thought I had bum-rapped his business. He invited me to his dealership, any time I liked, for as long as I liked, to see what the car game is really all about.
To say the least, this is not a great month to be a car dealer, especially in Northern Virginia. The recession had already pinched the real estate and construction businesses -- both mainstays of the Prince William County economy. Then came the federal budget circus, and all the tremors it sent through federal families.
"Would you buy a car under those circumstances?," Kevin asked me. No, I wouldn't -- and neither would too many others. As of Oct. 21, Woodbridge Chrysler Plymouth and its sister Nissan dealership had sold 61 cars this month. The total for all of September was 144.
But if you're a car salesman, the next five minutes can always change your fortunes, even if the last six hours have been zip. So it went in Woodbridge last Monday night.
First, a couple came in to look at a car they had first considered on Saturday. As Kevin explained, this is music to a dealer's ears. Very rarely does a "grazer" return. When one does, the dealer knows the visitor is a serious shopper. So the dealer will be more likely to spend his time and stretch his pursestrings to, as Kevin puts it, "get him done."
But this reappearing couple soon developed a classic case of sticker shock. They wanted to spend only a certain amount a month. The salesman showed them what that much money could buy. It wouldn't come close to buying the car they wanted.
The salesman came into Kevin's office for advice. "Show them a less expensive car," he said, "and keep them talking." The salesman did. But a half hour later, impasse. The couple just didn't like the cheaper car, and they absolutely, positively couldn't afford the car they had first considered.
Kevin and the salesman left them alone for five minutes. After four, the couple sold themselves. They agreed to buy the more expensive car, simply because it was the one they wanted.
Kevin smiled as if he had just swallowed a canary. "You'd be amazed how often this happens," he said. "Nobody twisted their arms. You never saw anybody threaten them or promise them the moon. This is an emotional business. People prove it every day. If they really want a car, they buy it."
Two sales stalls away, a young man in a black tank top was proving the opposite. He had marched in at about 7:30 and announced that he'd buy a new 1991 sedan for $7,000, right then and there, take it or leave it. The only trouble was the car's sticker price: $11,500.
I would have sworn the young man was a bluffer, hoping to get a bottom-line price and use it to make a deal elsewhere. But Kevin saw hope. Over the next hour, the $7,000 offer became $8,000. When it became $8,150, it was a deal.
The young man had been unusually difficult. He had swept his arm at the front window and blustered, "This dealership has to be worth $3 million, easy! And you're telling me you can't go another $400?" But Kevin had smiled and asked if the young man thought running a dealership was free. The argument took.
At 9:45 p.m., as the cleaning crew was swabbing ash trays and mopping floors, Kevin Druckenmiller finished his 12-hour day. Two cars sold. Only about $700 total profit for the dealership. Minimal commission for him. And no clear reason why those two sales were consummated when they might not have been on another day.
Still, "not bad for a rainy Monday," Kevin said. In the car game, it could always be worse.