Driven to Work

Car in Shopping Cart

I had to buy a new car yesterday. Interesting that I said “had to”, isn’t it? Pretty much sums up the state of the car buying experience these days. Despite all the potential for fun — lots of new shiny toys, all the options in the world to choose from, flashy ads from the car companies, the ecstasy of driving home in that new car smell — car retailers work furiously to take all the joy out of the process.

I used to have a nasty new car addiction, about half of the reason I kicked the habit was the pain of dealing with the dealers. I’m just over it, and I’m now driving a seven year old car with 100,000 miles on it. The car I bought yesterday was for someone else, or I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a dealership.

Why is this the only retail experience like this?

You see, when it comes to bargains, I’m not much of a hunter, I’m more of a gatherer. I’ll do all kinds of research so I know what a good price is, but if I have to fight for the price, it’s just not worth it. This makes me a lamb to slaughter in a car dealership. And they seem to sense it.

The whole experience is just rancid, and set up to make it absolutely horrible for the customer. It begs a lot of questions:

  • Why is it considered OK that ten different people would pay ten different prices for the exact same item, based solely on their skill at this silly game?
  • What happens to people who either don’t understand the game or can’t play it at all?
  • Why is it that you don’t even negotiate with the person directly, but send your representative (the salesperson, who is on the other team) into a mysterious back room to negotiate on your behalf?
  • Why is it that you have to threaten to leave before you have a deal?
  • Why is this the only retail experience like this? You don’t buy groceries, or appliances, or even a house this way.
  • How did the process get this way? Who came up with this process that is exactly the same in every dealership?
  • Why can’t anyone really change this terrible experience? Companies have tried (Saturn, Lexus) but it never sticks, and just rots into this same fetid mess.

But even these aren’t the questions that got me to thinking yesterday. I wonder about the people who have to live in this festering boil of a work environment, and what it does to them.

I wonder about the people who have to work in this festering boil.

As I was pacing waiting for yet another deal volley over the net to be returned, I was asked by another salesman if I was “having fun, yet”. I replied: “I’d rather be at the proctologist’s. I don’t know how you can do this for a living.” He said: “It’s my third day.”

What struck me was the way he said it. It was a combination of shame, humiliation, and resignation. Although I can’t say from experience, I would imagine you’d get the same answer from a new prostitute. I immediately thought, how sad.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never met a car salesperson who didn’t aspire to something else. Well, there are those who take a perverse glee in this sick game. But they aren’t common. Most just seem to be there until they get something better, or just something else that doesn’t involve french fry oil.

The whole car buying experience is so wrong.

The whole car buying experience, and the people in it, is so wrong. Even the latest innovation of getting multiple bids on-line is just a mask for the problem, as soon as you enter the dealer’s lair, you’re meat. How come some creative company can’t fix the whole thing?

6 thoughts on “Driven to Work

  1. Dave Doolin

    It’s actually really simple if you are willing break more “rules” of social convention than the dealership.

    Once you know what the right price is, simply state the terms, tell them that’s your final offer. If they persist, walk away. Seriously, just walk away. If they want to sell, they will get the car ready and call you later.

    Test drive the car you want at a different lot. The lot you buy from, look at the car, the odometer, but don’t even get behind the wheel. This will seriously screw with their head, you destroy their script from the beginning.

    Completely take charge of the entire interaction. If they treat you badly, leave. Took me three tries to buy my last car. First two dealerships were more interested in “winning” a pissing contest than selling me a car. The third dealership sold me what I wanted for the price I wanted.

    Another thing you can do is refuse to pay for extra stuff you don’t want. I didn’t want to pay for a radio in my Honda. They sold it as “factory installed,” and insisted I pay for it. I told them to “take it out, I don’t want it” and walked away. If it’s too much hassle, go to s different dealership.

    When they called me at home later, the salesman told me my car was ready whenever I wanted to come pick it up, and they tossed the radio in for free.

    This isn’t hard, but it does take a backbone and a willingness to have various sales people basically call you “difficult,” or worse.

    In short, the dealers work very hard to make buying a car an emotional experience rather than a business transaction. Keep everything on a pure business footing, you short circuit all their little head games.

  2. Chris Williams Post author

    I did something quite similar, they still work like heck to make it their game, and it is their home court. I did OK on the deal, as soon as I threatened to leave. But had to first fight against their silly second sticker with almost $2600 of “adjusted market value”.

    I still want to know why we put up with it, why no company can make other models stick, and, as I said perhaps more relevant to my area of concern, what this rancid, sick environment does to the people who slave away in it. Ugh. What a miserable life.

  3. Nancy Williams

    Is it because I believe them when they give me the price of the car that I haven’t had the miserable experiences you describe? Am I just a sucker to agree to what they say the car costs? I know what I want and when I see it and if it’s in my price range I buy it. I’ve even made friends with the owner of the dealership and when I need quick service – like I need it right NOW, before I go on a 1000 mile trip – I bring it in and get in and out in an hour and half. Would I do better doing all the research and fencing with the sales manager, that mysterious Oz behind the two-way glass? What am I missing here?

  4. Nancy Williams

    Is there a difference between buying a new car and used? Maybe that’s what I’ve lost in this translation. I live in a town with only one Volvo, BMW, Kia, Lexus or Mercedes dealership so I’m stuck with the place I’m handed. If I bought a Ford or Jeep I could play one off the other. Best I not buy another car for some time, I guess.

  5. Chris Williams Post author

    Nope, pretty much all car dealers are the same. With new it’s easier to compare apples to apples, of course. But you can do it with used too.

    It doesn’t matter how many dealers you have locally, you can buy the car anywhere. Here in Seattle, there are thousands of people who buy from a guy in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (400 miles away) because he sells cheap. He’s the biggest dealer in all of WA, ID, OR, MT, UT, WY, etc. By far. In a little tiny resort town.

    So, you could walk into your local dealer, say “I can buy this car online, or from a dealer in for $1500 off list, what can you do for me?” And they will have to listen.

    The point is, if you don’t haggle on a car purchase you are leaving $1,000s on the table. 10 different people walk into a dealer to but the exact same car will pay 10 different prices. Why should you be the only one who gets screwed?

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