Diary of a Used Car Salesman: Wheeler Dealers

Once a car salesman “data captures” you, the calls never stop. Some are rude. Some are sweet. All are pushy. The salesman’s goal: get the sale. Meet the quota (placate the Alpha Dog). Pay the bills (placate the Ex). In America’s highly competitive new car market, the chances of a car salesman making his nut are only slightly less than that of the squirrel in Ice Age. Have the bankruptcies and bailouts stopped dealers from getting up to their old tricks? Hell no. If anything, they’re abusing their customers MORE. Still, if you know how to handle the heat, it can always be a buyer’s market. Here’s how to work the system…

Back in the good old days (for the dealer), when the salesman saw you walking away from a negotiation, they considered it the end of the deal. Hence their “reluctance” to let you go (a.k.a. “We lost your car keys”). While dealers’ “take lots of prisoners” approach is still in force, today, there’s no escape. Phone calls and emails, and emails and phone calls, are headed your way. The good news? All those years of incentives and finance offers have trained salesmen that the deal is all about price. And the price has nowhere to go but down.

So, patience. In a buyer’s market, you hold the cards. For the foreseeable future, the longer you hold them, the more valuable they become. Accept the fact that your purchase should take place over the course of days, maybe even weeks. Again, the greater the delay, the better the deal.

There two types of car customers: “show horse” and “work horse” buyers.

Show horse buyers are looking for one type of car, in one type of color, with a very specific set of options. They’re a dealer’s wet dream.  You want a BOSE DVD video navigation system in that minivan? Well, OK! Let’s find you one with option X! Dealers dedicate their lives to “upselling” customers on manufacturer-created option “bundles.” Sound systems, safety packages and other works of “in” technology are carefully packaged so that show horse buyers pay through their proverbial snout for that one cool feature they really, really want.

Salesmen kill to put customers in this psychological/financial box.

The same game applies to paint and trim. When John Q. tells a dealer they will only consider one combination out of hundreds, they effectively eliminate 95-plus percent of the alternative vehicles out there. That gives the dealer, and the parent manufacturer, an awful lot of leverage. For the pistonheads and car lovers amongst us, option and paint specificity is our Achilles’ heel. Overall, the more “choosy” you are, the more you’re going to have to pay. Period.

So don’t be a show horse buyer. Even in today’s doldrums, you’ll save thousands of dollars by tempering your lust with the knowledge that even “dream cars” becomes just another car in a year or two.

The workhorse buyer has the upper hand. They may prefer two or three models. Or they may have several good fits. They may want to consider a wide range of options, paint or trim. Or perhaps just a few combinations. Either way, they understand the most basic law of supply and demand. The broader their taste palette, the better their overall deal.

Take a lesson from the ultimate work horse buyers (also my favorite type of customer): commercial firms. When a corporate purchaser receives a request for three pickups with only a few specifications, they can play the entire field in the pursuit of the deal. They realize the simple fact what’s on the lot has to go out the door. Deal with what they got. If they ain’t got it, or the price is wrong. Move on.

However there is at times an even better avenue than that for the ‘workhorse’ buyer.

As Tony Blair would have said, there is a middle way: the “demo.” Cars set aside for customer demonstration (a.k.a. test rides) often offer better warranties than the new cars on the lot; demos are almost always certified models. The best ones are loaded, owned and driven by high ranking members of the dealership (or their spouses). They see little more than the daily commuting duty. If you’re a show horse who wants all the bells and whistles, and can wait ‘til the end of model year, demos can provide a full list of options for several thousands less than an identical new model.

After more than a decade as an auto auctioneer and car buyer, I would argue that flexibility, honesty, mutual respect and patience are the best lubricators for a successful negotiation. Regardless, the bottom line never changes: the only power you have as a buyer is the power to walk away. Now more than ever, use it.

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