Kicking The Tires
For months I read newspaper accounts of massive changes in how Americans buy automobiles, notably the emergence of mega-dealerships, buying services, and "no hassle" pricing. Initially, these articles were of academic interest. Automobile retailing, however, suddenly became up close and personal when my elderly van gave alarming and expensive distress signals on two night-time trips to Washington. My normally stoic mechanic took to smiling and waving whenever I came near his shop. It was time to join the millions of rugged individualists driving sport utility vehicles, with four-wheel drive, poor fuel economy, and expensive tires to be ready for the blizzard of '97 and the potholes of '98.
I prepared for the purchase in academic fashion. I bought books. They rated vehicles, gave prices, and explained the fictitious nature of dealer invoices. The message was clear: public transportation. We forged onward, nonetheless, fearing that Consumer Reports might be a less useful guide for what lay ahead than Alice in Wonderland. We contacted a buying service (which assured us of the absolute lowest possible price) and entered the brave new world of automobile retailing with uncertain bearings, intentions, and credit.
My experience with the old way of buying cars began in graduate school, when I recall sitting in an isolation booth where customers could contemplate deals in privacy. After commenting on the salesman's multiple personality defects, I declared, "If they're stupid enough to give us the credit, we ought to be stupid enough to buy it." Local newspapers later ran stories about how dealers bugged such rooms and eavesdropped on buyers talking strategy. Our dealer was among those indicted.
Subsequent experiences were no more positive. One vehicle arrived with an unwanted transmission and the wrong engine for "only" $500 extra. Another salesperson responded to unattached bolts lying on the floor of a new car and loose pieces of trim by noting, "They come that way." Another salesman, when asked if I could test a second model (the first having performed badly), tore himself away from an Orioles broadcast and asked, "Are you going to drive everything on the lot?" It became a rhetorical question.
Almost 10 years had passed since my last encounter with a new car salesperson. Armed with guarantees from the buying service and equivocation from the Credit Union, we set out to see what had changed. That led us to a mammoth dealership where an eager, polite salesman assured us that things are different now. It was a comforting thought.
To an extent, there were differences. The salesman calmly accepted the fact that he was dealing with bottom feeders and made no attempt to sell us extravagant optional equipment, a task made easier by the fact that every option any rational human being could want was already on the base model.
Other things about the experience, however, were depressingly familiar. The rock-bottom buying service price, for instance, proved flexible. In hour two of dealership captivity, moreover, a familiar figure from the past materialized: the dreaded sales manager. Once upon a time, I had a foolproof way to ward him off--more effective than garlic, a silver bullet, or exposure to daylight. It involved my young son, who sat patiently through negotiations until I said the word "milkshake," at which point pathos ruled. It always got us out quickly.
This time the best defense against the sales manager was my wife, who hates shopping and would happily purchase everything except cats from a catalogue. When the sales manager arrived, she was morose, at best. Trying to break away and avert unpleasantness, I said that we couldn't make a decision until learning whether or not we qualified for the Credit Union loan. The sales manager immediately declared that, unbeknownst to us, he had run a check and discovered that our credit is "excellent." My wife became outraged, not at any perceived violation of our privacy, but at the thought we might have excellent credit. She insisted there had to be a mistake and demanded to see the report. It was a brilliant bargaining ploy. The price promptly dropped another $300, which the sales manager later altered to $250, proving that some things never change. By hour three, we had explored the list of things with which our vehicle could be coated, been coached on what to say on customer satisfaction surveys, and received two gift accessories, one of which does not work.
How different was it from buying a car the old way? The cast of characters was the same, but nicer. The haggling was less, but just as mysterious and protracted. The deluge of after-purchase add-ons was longer and technologically more sophisticated. I came away convinced that the system is marginally warmer, friendlier, and more rational, but that buying by catalogue would indeed be better.
As for the vehicle, we love it--and will miss it when it goes in for the recall announced this morning.
Guido Veloce is a Johns Hopkins professor.
RETURN TO SEPTEMBER 1997 TABLE OF CONTENTS.