- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

Yet another story decrying the horrors of the "auto dealer experience" appeared recently in a major metropolitan newspaper this time in the Los Angeles Times. A young man intent on purchasing a Toyota RAV4 for $20,800 ended up paying more than $25,000 before the deal was done. Overexuberant and worn down by a long negotiation, he had been taken.
Fortunately, there was a happy ending to the story. The buyer went back to the dealership, spoke with the owner, explained the situation and won himself a more equitable deal.
There is also a more upbeat story to be told about the dealer experience in general, according to a recent Gallup study of car buyers. An overwhelming majority of them (83 percent) are happy with their experience purchasing a car. This flies in the face of the stereotypes perpetuated by many people, particularly automotive journalists, who tend to view car salesmen as a form of life akin to the slug, and a dealer visit comparable to a trip to the dentist.
A study by Wirthlin Worldwide stuck its thumb in the eye of those who maintain that minorities are treated poorly in auto dealerships. Minority buyers were in a statistical dead heat with other buyers in agreeing about a pleasant dealer purchase or lease experience. (By the way, minorities apparently purchase a new vehicle about twice as often as other buyers. The rates of purchase were a new car every 23.1 months for minorities, and every 45.6 months for non-minority buyers.)
Internet use has become a very important means of gathering information about a new-car purchase, the studies said, but not in the actual purchase of the vehicle. "Bricks, not clicks" is the catch phrase that reassures auto dealers they are here to stay. People still want to touch, drive and gawk at a car before actually laying out the bucks for one. This is common sense. Most people apparently feel that when making their second-most-expensive purchase (behind their homes), they don't want to rely on a computer screen and a mouse. Virtual doesn't match actual.
The Gallup poll, which was undertaken in July 2000, showed that 43 percent of those who recently bought a car researched the purchase on line, compared with the 27 percent who used the Internet for their previous purchase. People use the Internet to determine price, options and color, and compare one model to another.
Anyone who has visited new-car Web sites (a recent search on Alta Vista turned up 49,515 such sites, including manufacturers, dealers, third-party brokers and information sites) knows they can be a lot of fun. Particularly informative are the manufacturer sites, where you can typically pick your car, then select color, trim level, special wheels and more to see exactly how your dream vehicle will look.
The more sophisticated sites include a view of the vehicle's interior, which changes as you add options. Prices are tallied so that you know precisely how much you should pay for the car or truck. This is valuable information, and armed with it, a potential buyer is much better equipped to deal with a dealership salesman whose income can depend on how many "goodies" he is able to add to your purchase.
While more and more people are using the Internet to research new cars, few are actually buying them electronically. Only 2 percent of Internet gawkers actually took delivery of their cars via deals made on the Net.
Other interesting findings in these studies:
Women were more positive about the overall purchasing or leasing experience than men. Overall satisfaction with one's dealership was also higher for women.
Members of the media believed that consumers had negative experiences at dealerships far more often than consumers themselves reported.
One out of five Americans has recently bought or leased a new vehicle.
Almost everyone (94 percent) reported being satisfied with the specific dealership from which they purchased or leased their new vehicle.
What the study can't show is why dealerships seem to be doing a better job these days. Our suspicion is that well-informed buyers, many of them on their toes thanks to Internet research, slice through traditional dealership palaver and get salespeople to "cut to the chase." That makes for a better all-around sales experience, and that's good news for everyone.

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