Oh, Joy: The (Woman’s) Guide to Shopping for a Car

February 25, 2014 by V.R.M. - No Comments

It almost sounds like the beginning of a joke. “ A woman walks into a car dealership…” but we all know that shopping for a car while female is almost always no joke. Heck, who are we kidding: shopping at car dealerships is usually not fun for anyone, and this is in big part because of the sales system in place.  Sorry, dealerships – you know it’s true. (If you haven’t listened to This American Life’s podcast, Cars, you should…it’s both revealing and disturbing).

No wonder they make movies about this stuff! (image via moviepostersonline.com)

No wonder they make movies about this stuff. (Image via moviepostersonline.com)

I was just reminded I am not the only one who has had a bad experience as a female purchasing a car. Recently, my friend C , who is very petite and looks very young, had to wait over one hour to have a salesman speak with her, and even after he did, he did not take her seriously. (She was smart enough to go to another dealership, where she found the attention she needed and, with her excellent credit, was able to purchase a great car). Like many women I know, I’ve learned that if you’re female and attempting to buy a car, chances are you are going to be treated differently. That’s because everyone knows girls don’t really like cars or numbers,  nor do they research cars before they buy them because they are emotional buyers. In addition, all women like cute cars like VW Beetles or practical ones like minivans. Right.

But since that was my own experience, and I didn’t want to have unsubstantiated beliefs about what it’s like to purchase a car if you’re female, I decided to conduct an informal poll:  I reached out to various people via social media and asked them to tell me about their car shopping experiences.  Their responses revealed my assumptions were both true and false. It’s not just women who dread car shopping–men, too, can have awful experiences. Also, it turns out that the answer to whether women get treated differently by car salesmen is complex.  “The answer to whether a female customer is going to be treated differently at the dealership is: absolutely and not at all,” says Eric Gedeon, a Porsche/Audi salesman at Audi Ann Arbor with over 12 years of experience.  I asked Eric to elaborate. Turns out, says Eric, that the ladies have been in charge of car purchasing decisions for quite a long time, and most salesmen know it.  He explains that he treats all customers differently based on what they need, regardless of whether they are male or female – his treatment is based on the kind of customer in front of him, not their sex. Eric says there are plenty of women who know exactly what they want, and plenty of men who do not. He makes no assumptions, and instead lets the customer inform him. Adds Eric, “the reason why I like my job is because each customer has a different need, and I like the challenge of meeting that need and being helpful.”  I can attest that Eric practices what he preaches — we have purchased three cars from him, and would recommend him to anyone who needed a car. I landed on Eric’s desk after a bad experience with a patronizing salesman, and experienced my first positive car purchasing experience at a dealership. What made this experience so great? He didn’t try to sell me anything or convince me that what I really wanted was an automatic minivan. He answered my questions in a clear and succinct way. He knew his product. And he did not waste my time — he just drew up the paperwork and the car was sold.

But Eric is rare among his kind. I wish I’d known him nearly 14 years ago, when I bought my first car and had my first bad car shopping experience. After saving for a while and researching cars, I decided to purchase a new 2000 VW Golf. I was living in Chicago at the time, so when I looked for available cars, a dealership in the suburb of Downer’s Grove, Pugi, had the car I wanted. Basically, I really wanted a German car (surprise) so I chose VW’s cheapest model at the time: a manual 2.0 Golf with no options. The car I picked didn’t even have power windows, but I didn’t care – it was a 5 speed and it was German, and I was in love. I called the dealership and they said they had the car. I offered to pay cash for it if they settled on the price I wanted, saying, “yes, we can do that, come on over.”  At the time, I didn’t have a car, so I hopped in a cab with my check in my pocket and an expensive, hour-long cab ride later I arrived at the dealership, ready to sign and drive my car off the lot. If only it could have been that easy.

The first car I bought looked just like this VW Golf. (image courtesy of wikimedia commons)

The first car I bought looked just like this VW Golf. Love at first sight, right? (image courtesy of wikimedia commons)

First, an older salesman handed me over to a younger salesman who was learning to swindle – er – sell. He showed me the car and then walked me over to his office, whereupon he announced that whoever agreed to selling it to me had not “looked at the invoice right” because the car was $1,500 more. In fact, they had a customer who was willing to pay full price for it, so if I really wanted it, it was a good idea for me to take it home tonight. He then proceeded to show me various numbers/taxes/delivery fees/packages (numbers always confuse girls, right?). Maybe his approach had nothing to do with the fact that I was female, and more to do with the fact that I was 27 years old and very excited to buy my first car. I am sure I looked eager and innocent, which made me an easy target.

The following two hours consisted of the salesman going back and forth between his office and his “manager’s” office, “going to bat” for me, “doing all he could” to get his manager to lower the price. I wanted the car, but I didn’t want to pay more. He knew I was stuck in Downer’s Grove (good luck calling a cab).

Finally, I agreed to pay $500 more than we had agreed on while on the phone hours earlier. I signed the papers and wanted to get out of the god-forsaken lot . The salesman offered to show me the car’s features, but I just wanted to get away from him and his colleagues, so I said no. I drove home with a monster headache and angry at the whole car shopping business, and of course swearing I’d never get wrapped up in that kind of experience again. I found it hard to understand why a salesman would choose to ruin what could potentially have been a lifetime customer relationship with me – plus my referrals – for $500.

A great salesman made this one fun to buy...and drive.

A great salesman made this one fun to buy…and drive.

The good news is, my black VW Golf went on to give me many years of good times and fun drives. It was the first car I drove at a race track (with a bike rack still on it!). I kept the Golf until I had twins, at which point it became necessary to get something a little bigger. When I set off to replace the Golf with an Audi Allroad, I nearly went down the same road as my first purchase experience: I found the car, was told by the dealership they had it, arrived at the dealership, and then the salesman started his spiel: “Oh, we just sold that car, but we have a similar one that has better options for you for $2,500 more.”  This time I was 5 minutes from home, and I knew better. “No thanks. Keep your car.”  I found a VW Passat Wagon elsewhere.

It seems like many of us have learned from our first, terrible car shopping experience. “The first car I bought, my husband M went with me, because honestly, he knew more than I did,” says my friend L. “The salesman was a jerk, though — looked at M and directed questions to him, even though it was my car and I was paying for it. (We weren’t married then).” But L learned from her experience: “when we bought the van, the experience was much better. I was treated well, by both salesmen we worked with. Of course, I had done my homework that time, so I knew what I wanted and how much I wanted to pay. It didn’t hurt that I was 9 months pregnant, with two preschoolers in tow: I said something like, ‘I need a van by next week. If you can’t give it to me for $x, just tell me now so I can go somewhere else.’ “ Adds L, “knowledge and confidence (or at least a no bullpoop attitude) are key, whether you’re a man or a woman.” Agreed.

Below are 7 tips on how you can make your car purchasing experience better, whether you’re female or not.

1. Ask your friends. When you’re getting ready to buy a car, ask your friends whether they have recently had a great experience with a dealership or salesman. I’m happy to say that my car purchase experiences have been much more pleasant since we found a salesman we trust and like. Not surprisingly, when we asked our salesman for tips for this article, Eric echoed our advice: “ask your friends. Get a referral for a salesman, and you’ll have a better experience.” While you can also rely on on-line reviews, friends are more likely to offer recommendations which most closely meet your needs. Social media makes this step a snap. My friend E recently used Facebook to ask her friends to offer their thoughts on which SUV she and her family should buy, and within minutes she had several replies and helpful referrals for various brands and salesmen.

2. Knowledge is power: do your homework. There is nothing wrong with test-driving as many cars as you wish before purchasing. However, when you are ready to buy, research pricing and availability of the car of your choice beforehand. What options are available? What is the manufacturer’s published price? How much above sticker are you willing to pay? The more you know, the better you’ll be able to slice through the fluff dished out by some salesmen.

My friend E’s wife found success in internet research and negotiation. “When we bought my wife M’s car (new), she handled much of the negotiation stage via email, which seemed to work quite well. Having test-driven a couple of cars and decided what she wanted, she sent multiple dealers a list of exactly the features, options, etc., and then worked with them via email to settle on a price. It seemed to work pretty well: she got just what she wanted at a price that we felt was okay.”

3. Not good with numbers? Not good with cars? Take a buddy with you and take your time. There is no shame in taking your sister, your friend, or your partner (anyone who has the knowledge you lack) when you are ready to buy. When faced with numbers or car features you don’t understand, don’t be pressured to answer quickly – there is nothing wrong with saying, “I need to consider that.” You should be able to take the car details and a sales quote home with you to review it at ease.

Says A, “when I bought my car, I let [my husband] A and his dad handle everything because I didn’t trust anyone. Does it feed into the stereotype? Yes. But, in addition to not trusting salespeople, I also don’t feel I know enough about cars myself.” Kudos to her for finding backup and using it to get the car she wanted.

4. Know what you want. If you want a white Ford Fiesta, don’t let the salesman convince you that what you really want is the blue Ford Focus he has sitting on the lot. The salespeople are there to make you happy, not the other way around. Many salespeople are under pressure to meet monthly sales quotas, and they need the sale more than you need the car. Also, be aware that depending on the car you are looking for, availability may be an issue. “If you’re looking for a specific Audi Q5 and you walk in on the 27th of the month, chances are we won’t have any to sell you, so this is an instance where waiting to the end of the month to get the deal probably won’t work for you,” says Eric. An easy solution, he suggests, is to make an appointment so your time at the dealership is devoted to you, and the salesman can look through the inventory before you arrive.

5. Don’t exactly know what you want? A good salesman can help. An informed salesmen can work with you pick the perfect car for you — but first, you must pick the right salesman. “If you don’t have a referral from a friend, ask for the salesman who has been at the dealership the longest,” suggests Eric.  The senior salesmen tend to be well-liked by customers (hence their permanence) and have solid knowledge about the cars they sell. Also, it is possible that they experience less sales pressure vs the younger employees.

6. Not getting answers? Don’t like your salesperson? Make a change. If you’re having a miserable time at the dealership, don’t be shy about asking for a manager or another salesman. While you should always be polite, being nice and putting up with a salesperson you don’t like is unlikely to get you good results at the dealership.  “I tend to seek out a female salesperson,” says L, ” Sexist? Maybe, but that’s what I do.” If it works for you, and it makes your car shopping experience positive, that’s fine.

7. Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you are not getting the deal you want, or the car you want, walk away. I can’t guarantee that the car you want won’t be sold that same day, but it is unlikely.  Walking away and telling the salesperson that they can call you when they are willing to sell the car for what you are willing to pay tells them you mean business. (Note: this only works if your price is fair. You can’t offer $12K for a car with a $20K sticker price and expect to go home in that car).

The willingness to step away has always worked for D. “When I shop for a car, I never argue, always agree that it is worth every penny they want. Their price is simply not what I had budgeted. Then they drag out payment methods to accommodate me. I just smile and say payment is not the problem; I have simply budgeted the amount I have named. I understand that they need to make a profit and I want them to, so please, if we can’t do business, nobody should be mad.” But D admits no emotion can be involved in this method: “this requires…that I never get the hots for a car. Beyond the amount I have budgeted, that is. Honesty & self control save time and effort.”

What have your car shopping experiences been like? Do you have any tips you’d like to share with us? Do so below!