August 20, 2012
This weekend my wife and I went shopping to replace our beloved minivan. Negotiating car prices is a fascinating experience. I’m not good at negotiating because I’ve never taken acting classes. I find it hard to get into character. When the salesman asked me how much I wanted to spend on our chosen vehicle, I only had one response ready: “I’d like to spend zero, you boiled turd. Just give it to me. Or did I misunderstand the question?”
Okay, I didn’t say that. But I did laugh at him in a mocking sort of way. Obviously the question is designed to determine how dumb the customer is. You pass the test by not taking out a copy of your bank statement and saying, “I can’t read. Can you tell me how much money I have?” The sales guy bowed out of the negotiations and introduced us to the General Manager. The GM went into his ridiculous spiel about how he was willing to sell this vehicle for less than he paid because he wants the manufacturer to give him a higher quota of that model next month. Apparently his business plan involves having a greater inventory of cars that no one is willing to buy for more than his costs. The general manager looked me in the eye to see if I believed his absurd lie. My wife and I just glanced at each other with mock disappointment. The game was on.
It was time to get into character. I played the part of the husband who insists on doing endless research, thus providing the dealership with no hope of closing the sale today. I said, “I want to spend some time doing research and then I can give you an offer. Maybe I can get that done by tomorrow.”
Sales people hate two things: Informed customers and postponement. This was the worst case scenario for the dealership, and my ploy was designed to make the general manager “negotiate with himself,” as the saying goes. In other words, we wanted him to keep offering lower prices before we made our first offer. That brings down the ceiling price and prevents us from accidentally offering more than he would have asked for.
Then the general manager goes into his canned routine about some sort of dealer incentive or other ambiguous pot of money that he could reluctantly dip into, thus offering an even lower price. He said that if we accepted this offer his children would have to wear clothes made of plastic grocery bags or some damned thing. I wasn’t paying attention to the details.
We acted unhappy and asked for his business card. “We’ll do some research and get back to you,” we said.
Later that evening, an hour before the dealership closed, Shelly sent a text to the general manager offering a glimmer of hope. Shelly took on the part of the “good cop.” Her character wanted the car but she needed a way to convince her stubborn husband to stop researching. She told the general manager by text that she needed another $1,000 off the price he offered to make that happen. He offered half of that. We accepted.
Before we made our offer I did my research only to discover that there was no way to figure out a fair price for this particular vehicle. There are plenty of sites that seem to offer that sort of information, but not credibly, and usually not for this model. I assume the car-buying sites are in the pockets of the car dealers or have their own scams going. In the end, we were flying blind and probably got screwed on the price. But that leads me to my favorite part of the negotiating process. No, we weren’t done yet. Once you have an agreed price, the dealer keeps negotiating, but more cleverly this time.
The next step in the negotiations – if you can call it that – involves a fill-in sales guy making a “mistake” that lists the price on our paperwork far higher than what we agreed. By the time you get to this stage of the process, you’re worn out from looking at all of the numbers, and you’re tempted to sign whatever they slide in front of you. But I’ve been through this process enough times to know that the first version is always the “mistake” paperwork. I asked to see what price he had on his forms before he went too far, showed it to my wife, and explained to her the “mistake” price ploy. The sales guy apologized for the “mistake” and corrected it.
The sales guy introduced us to the finance guy for the rest of the paperwork. This is the final phase of our negotiations. The finance guy goes into his transparently phony act of amazement that we convinced the general manager to give us such a good price. He acts as if the price is so low it might be a mistake, or some kind of once-every-hundred-years situation. This is total bullshit, of course, and every finance guy at every dealership says the same thing to every buyer. But it still feels good, which makes me feel dirty.
The finance guy goes into his sales pitch about how we need some sort of invisible coating of magic protection for the exterior of the car. Without that protection a midsized bird can shit right through the hood and halfway through the engine block. We also need some invisible chemicals to protect the interior of the car because otherwise we are just wasting our money. Oh, and we need a more comprehensive warranty to cover all of the many, many things that will be breaking on this car. Apparently we had negotiated a terrific price on a car that was highly vulnerable to the elements. I kept craning my neck to see if it had dissolved into the parking lot behind me. All of the invisible and magical products he offered totaled several thousand dollars.
I declined all offers, but the finance guy wasn’t done. He poured water on a sample of floor upholstery that had allegedly been coated with magic protectant. The water beaded and rolled like a marble. It was cool. But I turned it down.
As I assess our performance in this process, I want to believe we got a good price and that we cleverly declined offers for useless add-ons. The reality is that we are amateurs and we were dealing with professionals. The rational part of me knows that somewhere there are customers getting better prices on this same vehicle, which causes me to hate both the car and the dealership. And thanks to the finance guy, I have to worry that my car has no magic protection. I’ve afraid to exhale in its general direction.
Today we will take the car back to the dealer to find out why it is leaking so badly. It might be water from the AC, but it’s a non-stop stream. I just hope we don’t run into the finance guy at the dealership. I don’t want to hear how the magic protection would have stopped this leak.