A Staff Report from academicpursuits.us Science Advisory Board

Why is buying cars so unpleasant?

September 14, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

One would think that if the people who sell cars wanted to sell more cars, they'd do everything they could to make buying a car a pleasant experience. In real life, they do the exact opposite. Is there some intelligent reason for this, or is it just that they're the cretins they seem to be? I could rephrase the question as: do car sellers do what they do because it's the way they are, or are they the way they are because of what they do?

SDStaff Lileth, Melis, Wolf, and Dogster collectively reply:

It's probably a little of both.

Car dealers obviously have a vested interest in getting you to buy a car, now. While you may enjoy looking and deciding at your leisure, it's the salesman's job to make the purchase of the car you are looking at seem urgent. Even if it's a stock Ford Escort, they want to make you feel that if you don't buy that particular car this instant, you will have lost your chance.

If they don't sell a car, chances are they don't get paid. Many dealers work on a commission … and there are many incentives to sell as many cars as they can — from a trip to Hawaii, down to whether you keep your job.

In the auto sales industry, sales people have many things going against them. In a market of any size, there is more than one place to buy the same car. There is also a place to buy the same car but with a different nameplate (especially true of American cars). The market for cars is inelastic, which is to say that it's really not seasonal — the sales opportunities do not peak or dip any appreciable amount at any particular point in the calendar. What this boils down to is this: YOU HAVE ONE CHANCE TO SELL THIS CUSTOMER A CAR. IF YOU CAN'T SELL HIM/HER RIGHT NOW, IT'S ALL OVER. Harsh as this seems, it's true. That's why they push so hard to make the sale. Experience has shown that if you walk off the lot, you're never coming back.

This is also why car dealers have traditionally had such short, inconvenient hours of business. They don't want you to be able to go from showroom to showroom and comparison shop. They want you to have to come in on your lunch hour, or on your way home from work, when you'll be in a hurry. Some dealers have recently started having longer hours, and being open on Saturday, but this is controversial among dealers. In the Detroit area, a car dealer can't be open on Saturdays unless the competition has similar hours.

Also take this into account. The used car market right now is dreadful. Absolutely awful. Why buy a used car you know little about when you can lease a brand new one for a reasonable monthly payment? Well, I could detail the scams involved in leasing, but that's not the question on the table right now. Anyway, used car dealers are hurting right now - so they are more likely to use the 'hard sell' approach, which is the aggressive stance you encountered. When times were better and the dealer had good quality merchandise, he could use the 'soft sell' approach. If you liked the car, fine. If not, well, it was a nice piece and someone else was going to come along to buy it. But those days are over as the market dries up.

Remember that there are plenty of cars out there to buy, and don't let a dealer make your experience unpleasant. If you do get suckered in, thank goodness for the 3-day buyer's remorse law! Assuming your state that HAS a buyer's remorse law. If not, well, don't do anything you'll regret (that is, even more than you regret buying the car in the first place). But this might be a good time to write to your state representative.

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Staff Reports are written by academicpursuits.us Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

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