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Has Car Shopping Changed Since "Confessions of a Car Salesman"?

There Are Solutions for Car Shoppers' "Pain Points"


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In 2000, I spent three months undercover as a car salesman and wrote about my experiences in "Confessions of a Car Salesman." In the ensuing years, thousands of car buyers have read the article and thanked Edmunds for publishing it. Countless car salespeople and dealers also have read it. While the story has resonated with some industry insiders, others have challenged the integrity of the story by saying, "That doesn't happen anymore. Things have changed."

Brave New World or Same Old Thing?
Have things changed? It's hard to address that question because of the enormous variety of dealerships and salespeople in the business today. I believe that depending on where and how you shop, you could have the same contentious experience your father had 50 years ago. Or, if you shop differently, using the tools of the Internet, you could have a vastly different experience: one that is efficient, fair and stress-free.

So if you pressed me for a quick answer as to whether the shady practices described in "Confessions" still happen, I would have to say yes: In some dealerships, those tricks and traps are alive and well. But in many other dealerships they are dead and buried.

Some statistics seem to bear that out: In 2012, consumers made 59,214 complaints alleging fraudulent practices in the sale of new and used cars, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That's a substantial number, but it constitutes just a fraction of the nearly 15 million cars sold in the U.S. in 2012. My sense is that, on the whole, the car shopping experience has improved for the customer.

What Car Shoppers Hate
To provide a more specific answer about what has and hasn't changed, I made a list of the things that irk car shoppers. It boils down to these five "pain points."

1. I can't get a real price for the car I'm interested in buying.
2. I hate negotiating.
3. I don't like waiting while my salesman takes my offer to "the boss."
4. I hate feeling pressured and manipulated.
5. The sales pitches for additional products and services in the finance and insurance office make me uncomfortable.

Some of these pain points aren't as acute as they once were, but often that's only true if the shopper has discovered a workaround. In other words, many dealers would love to have you simply walk onto the car lot, as shoppers have always done, and play the age-old car-buying game. But savvy shoppers have learned to use the Web and dealership Internet departments, both of which provide information and a means of communication that speeds up the shopping process enormously. Oftentimes, dealerships don't advertise these approaches, so it is up to the shopper to discover them and learn how to use them.

In assessing whether each pain point has become less painful in the last decade, I base my answers on my experiences as someone who buys an average of 10 cars each year for the Edmunds.com long-term testing fleet. I also talk to many people who are actively shopping for cars and they share their experiences with me. Finally, I've consulted with experienced car salesmen and dealers for their insights.

Pain Point No. 1: I can't get a real price for the car I'm interested in buying.
This remains a huge problem and ranks as the No. 1 complaint from 54 percent of car shoppers, according to Edmunds.com research. On some car lots, it is impossible to quickly get a price on a car for sale. If you ask a salesperson at those stores, "What is the real price of this car?" the answer might be, "What are you willing to pay?" Or, "It depends. Are you financing with us?" Or many other possible non-answers.

To deal with this issue, Edmunds.com has introduced Price PromiseSM to give shoppers an upfront, guaranteed price on a specific car at a dealership. Meanwhile, some dealerships have experimented with posting discounted prices on the cars. This is helpful, but still leaves the shopper wondering if this is the very lowest the dealer is willing to accept. Still other dealership chains, such as AutoNationDirect.com provide firm, discounted prices online.

So on this pain point at least, there has been progress — as long as you know the workaround.

Pain Point No. 2: I hate negotiating.
Most buyers don't know how to negotiate and as a result they feel vulnerable and even frightened by the process. But they are torn: They want a good deal and don't want to feel the car salesperson is taking advantage of them. So they think they must get into haggle mode.

Car buyers who walk onto a car lot and negotiate face-to-face in a sales office may find that the negotiation process is largely unchanged. But shoppers choosing the Internet route can generally avoid negotiating. Since the initial price quote from the Internet sales team is typically so close to invoice and so far below the sticker price, shoppers often feel there is little to gain by haggling.

Again, the improvement in this area lies in knowing about and using an alternative to conventional car buying.

Pain Point No. 3: I don't like waiting while my salesman takes my offer to "the boss."
Some dealers still believe that the longer they keep customers waiting, the greater the time investment the shoppers will feel they've made and the more likely they will be to buy at a higher price. It's understandable that a sales manager needs to approve a price before he finalizes the deal. But there is no reason for it to take so long.

Unfortunately, this delaying tactic is still in effect at some dealerships. It ranges widely from a brief and tolerable five-minute absence to 30 minutes in limbo. In some cases, the salesperson who returns to the buyer is someone altogether new, or is one of many levels of managers who will now employ a different tactic to achieve a sale. A shopper who gets caught up in this game can easily spend two hours or more doing the back-and-forth without seeing an improvement on the price.

If this is happening to you, you can exert some control by refusing to tolerate long waits. One easy thing to do is to stand up when the salesperson does and say that you will be browsing the cars in the showroom or getting something from your car. This may leave the impression that you might leave and will likely prompt a quick return.

Edmunds discusses some other approaches to speeding up car buying in "Buy a New Car in One Day" and "How to Speed Up Car-Buying Paperwork."

Pain Point No. 4: I hate feeling pressured and manipulated by salespeople.
The amount of pressure that salespeople exert varies widely by dealership and brand. Some dealerships are still old school and apt to pressure a customer to close a sale, but many dealerships are now more aware that customers hate pressure, so their sales teams are less prone to bear down on buyers to close a sale.

In fact, in many cases, mystery shoppers have actually reported just the opposite problem. They can't get a salesperson to help them. In this situation, it's best to ask the dealership receptionist to page the sales manager, who will gladly assign an available salesperson to help you.

The best way to avoid the hard sell is to choose the right salesperson in the first place. Pay attention to how the salesperson treats you in the early stages of the process. If you feel uncomfortable, go no further.

Finally, you might like your salesperson but suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a manager who is acting as a "closer" and who won't take no for an answer. If this is the case, don't hesitate to simply leave. That's far better than being talked into a deal.

Pain Point No. 5: The sales pitches in the finance and insurance office make me feel uncomfortable.
As the profit has been squeezed out of the actual car purchase, many dealerships are pushing harder to realize profit elsewhere. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), the gross margin on the sale of new cars and trucks fell to 4.2 percent in 2012 from 4.6 percent in 2011. But aftermarket income rose "because of increasing F&I and service contract dollars," according to NADA.

Sales of F&I products now represent 37 percent of new- and used-vehicle department gross profit, NADA says. That's the highest it's been in 10 years.

That means the hard sell may be coming on products like extended warranties and a car alarm once you hit the F&I office. If you aren't interested in the products being offered, be ready to say no, even if you encounter a persistent finance and insurance manager, such as the one profiled in "Confessions of an Auto Finance Manager."

Find Your Way Past the Pain
Car shoppers can have better car buying experiences and minimize their chances of being hurt by these pain points. Even if every car dealership hasn't changed, many of them have. My advice has always been to find the dealerships and salespeople who will treat you right, and give them your business. Word of mouth is one way to find these businesses. Using Edmunds Dealers Ratings and Reviews is another.

And while it would be nice if all the bad behavior I saw in "Confessions" disappeared tomorrow, you can use the tips here to make it disappear right now for you, your friends and family members. And that's a good start.

Read more articles in the Edmunds Confessions Series.

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Most Recommended Comments

By bickatbyers
on 08/23/11
12:34 PM PST

It kills me that "Wortman" sold three to four cars a month. He was taking up space at a desk, he was not a salesman. I've been selling for 16 years. My number one goal is to do a good enough job to get a permanent customer, and referrals. I never concern myself with how much gross profit there is on any one car deal. The biggest and costliest mistake a consumer can make, is to buy the wrong car. Buying a midsize SUV for example when you've got three young children who will outgrow it in several years can cost you $10,000 dollars. A good salesman presents you with good alternatives, and earns his or her commission. This profession is in no danger of going away, except for individuals and dealerships who don't adapt.

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By thatlaoguy
on 09/20/11
9:43 PM PST

I'm in the market for a new car and it'll be my first buying one for myself. Last time I received a new car, my parents did all the work. After doing a bit of research about dealerships and their dirty tricks, it made me a smarter buyer. I'm not saying I'm and expert, but I now I know what to expect. Being a recent college grad and with a decent career, I probably would have been taken advantage of. A month ago, as I was browsing websites looking at all the shiny new cars, I expected to pay the msrp that was listed on the sites. Basically, I was going to end up in a dealer paying full price and I guarantee you they would have taken it and laughed about it as I drove off. Nowadays, I'm asking myself these questions 1. What is the purpose of a salesmen when I do my own homework and know what it is I want in terms of needs, performance, price, and colour? Isn't there a way to cut out the middleman(salesmen) and get the car for it's (true) invoice price? Now I understand the dealer has to make money as well and that's fine. I'm more than happy to pay the dealer for their services and all but the salesmen are obsolete in this day and age. You spend 4 hours helping someone? I spend 3 hours a night for 2 months researching my next big purchase in life. I'm entitled to my hard earned money. 2. is the listed invoice price truly what the dealer pays for the car? I compared invoice prices from cars in the 90s to cars now. I'm seeing a difference of $2,000 to $3000 from invoice to msrp from older cars in the 90s. Checking invoice prices for cars within the past year or so, I'm only seeing a difference of about $1000. This comes off as a bit fishy and reading how people are paying invoice for their cars and walking out happy strikes me as odd. Where is the dealer making the cash if they're selling the cars for the amount they've bought it for? I've got a feeling the invoice price has been manipulated in some way or another or some other fees were added to ensure that the dealers would still make money despite internet buyers walking in and demanding to pay invoice. This is the only explanation I can come up with. This is a shady business indeed. I have not concluded that I'll be buying from private owners instead of ever buying from dealerships. I just can't trust the practice the more articles I read about how dirty these folks are. I often see these salesmen come on here and cry to the public about how they're good people just trying to make a living yet would turn around and laugh at the buyer after they've duped them. Sure, not everyone is shady like that, but from what I've got and experienced, it seems that way. You make a living by marking up the prices of cars to earn a bigger commission? I don't get why your dinner and your kids tuition has to come at our expense. You guys don't manufacture the cars yourself. Your only job is to hand us the keys and be present as we take the car out for a test drive. I don't think that's worth 3-4 grand over invoice. People should be able to tip you for the time. 10 bucks and hour you spend helping is fair. I also see these salesmen come on here and tell us that if we're nice and polite to the salesmen, we'll walk out with a good deal and it'll be a better buying experience. DEFINE a GOOD DEAL!? Seriously, this is what i've seen from all the "good guys" in the sales department. A good deal for me is buying the car for (true) invoice as well as paying the dealer a set amount for their troubles and work. Everyone is happy except the obsolete salesmen.

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By pm2kar50
on 08/22/11
11:06 AM PST

You're right about one thing. Having to go buy a vehicle and talk to care salesmen IS worse than having a root canal. You know....you KNOW that you're gonna get screwed one way or another. There's another category of buyer though, that you overlooked, and that's the buyer whose credit is in the toilet. Unfortunately, I'm one of them. What I've found is when you go to the lots and dealers that will even look at you, you're screwed. The inflated price you see on the vehicle is the price you're going to pay, period. Once it's known your credit's bad, they know they have you by the balls. They won't negotiate, and once you finance it, 18-24% is the norm. There should be a way to get around these vultures, because they are REALLY giving the industry a bad name.

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