Have you ever read the parable of the scorpion and the frog? If you have, then you know approximately what the relationship is like between major car companies and their dealers. As a former dealership employee, I can recite chapter and verse about how the automakers made our lives a lot harder than they needed to be. All things considered, however, I think the dealers create far more problems for the manufacturers.
Even the most careless, incompetent automakers out there plan three or four years in advance. Dealerships rarely look farther than the end of the month—sometimes the end of the week. Heck, I’ve been involved in situations where somebody put off quitting their sales job just long enough to sell one more minivan—then took the rest of the afternoon, and the rest of their job, off. A few years ago, I dated an exotic dancer who described just how transient the business was: she’d started a shift at one club, quit over something minor, then interviewed at a second club that evening, and started working there the following day. I had to laugh—I’d seen that happen with new-car sales people a half-dozen times.
As a consequence of their differing approaches to what’s called “future time orientation,” dealers and manufacturers often find themselves in direct conflict. Last year, I warned that the Ford Focus RS could fall prey to this difference, and I was right. That’s awfully frustrating for people who love good performance cars—but wait, it gets worse.
If you’re shopping for a new enthusiast-oriented car at a dealership that doesn't specialize in them, particularly if you’re under 30 years old, chances are you’re very familiar with what I call the “dealership brush-off." It works something like this: After six months of reading every available magazine, watching all the second-rate YouTube videos, and lurking on the model-specific forums, you’ve finally decided to step up to the plate and spend your hard-earned future loan payments on a Gorgonzola MVS-400istxC Black Edition. You know the order book backwards and forwards, you know which packages rely on which options, and you know the specs on all three of the available wheel-and-tire sets.
Armed with all this knowledge and a pre-approval letter from your credit union, you show up at the Gorgonzola dealership on the 27th of the month ready to buy. There’s just one little problem: Your assigned salesperson is not interested in answering questions about the MVS-400istxC that’s in stock, he’s not interested in talking about the timeline and costs for a factory order, and he is definitely, absolutely not interested in letting you drive the car before you buy it. Instead, he keeps saying things that seem designed to make you leave the dealership and come back later.
It’s bewildering. You’ve never bought a brand-new enthusiast car before and you can’t understand why this isn’t as big a deal for him as it is for you. I mean, he doesn’t even have to sell you on the thing! He just has to take your order! Why does he keep telling you that you should go home and think about it? You think back to watching your parents buy an SUV or minvan and all the “BUY RIGHT NOW!” pressure they got from the salespeople—but your salesman doesn’t even seem to know where the new-car “deal sheets” are kept.
The answer is hard to believe, but it’s true: He doesn’t want your business. He wants you to leave. Right now. Immediately. Even though you’ve already decided to buy. Why?
It’s because the time it will take him to deal with you—and your factory-order specs, and your determination to pay factory invoice, and your requests that your new Gorgonzola not be washed with a brush or rag before delivery—is about three times as long as it will take him to lease a new Gorgonzola QGLX500 crossover. To a busy parent of three. Who will make her decision based on nothing but monthly payment. And who will cheerfully accept a demo-mileage crummy-color unit with a weird combination of options and a bunch of fine-line scratches on the front bumper from where the “lot boy” got a little aggressive with a dirty broom.
This is particularly true if you visit the dealership on an evening or weekend. While you’re asking him to confirm that the Track Pack is available for March production, he’s watching his fellow salespeople close deals with about 30 to 40 percent of the people who walk in, making high-profit sales that take less than 90 minutes from handshake to wave goodbye. Each one of those deals can mean well over $1000 in salesperson profit with the right incentives. Your invoice-price factory order? That’s what we call a “mini deal," which pays between 50 and 500 bucks. At a modern dealership that pays sales staff based on a bunch of average-profit-related factors, your sale can cost the salesperson money on other, previous sales.
Worse still, chances are you want to test-drive the MVS-400istxC Black Edition that the dealer has in stock. Not only will the salesperson view this as a joyride waste of time, it adds mileage to the demo unit, which could keep the next detail-oriented car freak who walks in from buying it. “What? You mean this MVS-400istxC Black Edition has 43 miles on it? What did you do, take it to the local dragstrip for Grudge Night?”
Oh, but wait, it gets worse for the salesperson. Some percentage of performance-car buyers have to unwind their deals after talking to their insurance companies, which means returning deposits and losing factory allocations. Then there’s the fact that an SUV buyer could send along three new
marks suckers customers via Facebook, all based on a free car wash with the first oil change. You, the salesperson suspects, will torch the dealership on the model-specific forums because you zeroed-out the trip odometer when you brought it in for warranty service and they put 1.3 miles on the car doing the road test. Unconcerned SUV Buyer answers 10-out-of-10 across the board on customer satisfaction surveys. You give a six out of 10 because, based on something you heard on Top Gear, you believe dealerships in Germany do a better job with their customers—which costs your salesperson a $3,000 end-of-year bonus.
I saw all of the above happen again and again when I sold new cars. Some of my fellow salespeople appeared to have psychic abilities to detect enthusiasts. Or they were just very sensitive to the apperance, and current vehicle, of the people entering the lot. I can’t tell you how many times I saw a young guy pull up to our front door in a six-year-old Mustang or Camaro—and turned around to find the five salesmen who'd been standing around me had magically vanished. I knew guys who would literally footrace you to a family in a three-year-old minivan but who somehow always managed to be “phoning a prospect” when a 25-year-old in a rattletrap GTI appeared. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic—for enthusiasts, and for the automakers who rely on these dealers to sell their enthusiast-oriented product.
Alright. Enough with the complaining. How can we make it better? Speaking from a general perspective, we can’t. Dealers are always going to be suspicious of enthusiast customers, period. There are some notable exceptions out there: was famous for taking care of Viper buyers; every Corvette fan out there has heard of ; and my pal Matt Farah had a great experience taking delivery of his Focus RS from . If you can find an enthusiast-friendly dealership, you should work with them, even if it costs you extra time and travel.
Unfortunately, that's not always an option. But there are there are things we can do to make the situation better for ourselves at the SUV-and-truck-obsessed average-joe dealers out there.
If your plan for a new car involves an invoice-ish deal on a factory order or hard-to-find unit, don’t go to the dealer on Saturday afternoon and line up behind the SUV buyers. Call the dealer on a Tuesday morning and make an appointment for a specific time during the day. Get there before 4pm, when casual traffic starts to ramp up at most dealers. Be direct and forthright. This script has worked well for me in the past:
“Thanks for making time for me today. I’m interested in ordering a new Gorgonzola MVS-400istxC Black Edition to my specs. I’m not in a hurry. However, if the numbers are right, I will give you a deposit today and I will place my order today.”
Keep saying words like "today" and "now" until the glazed look departs your salesperson's face. If you need a test drive, say “I need to drive the car, and if it meets my expectations I will buy today.”
Does it suck to have to kinda-sorta beg someone to sell you a car? Yes. But it’s better than being jerked around by a sales crew that would rather be doing the Lease Of The Week to somebody who didn’t pay attention in high-school math classes. And if you have a satisfactory deal, you will be able to work with the same salesperson next time...
Okay, you caught me. I’m just kidding about that. The idea of a car-sales professional who stays at a dealership for more than a couple of years? Now that's a fable.
Born in Brooklyn but banished to Ohio, Jack Baruth has won races on four different kinds of bicycles and in seven different kinds of cars. Everything he writes should probably come with a trigger warning. His column, Avoidable Contact, runs twice a week.