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Liars on the Lot: The Sneaky Tricks Car Salespeople Use

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For many people, buying a new car is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences they can endure. Inexperienced buyers can become easily overwhelmed by high-pressure sales tactics and confusing number crunching, and before they know it, they find themselves driving a car that they’re not sure they even like or can afford.

An added stress is the fact that most folks don’t consider car salespeople a very trustworthy bunch in general. A 2009 Gallup poll found that they rank near the bottom in terms of perceived ethics and honesty—higher than stockbrokers and HMO managers, but lower than members of Congress. Car salespeople use a common set of sales tactics designed to minimize customers’ resistance and maximize their own profits. Being on the lookout for them—and knowing how to turn them around—can make your next car-buying experience much less stressful.

In this dishonest bait-and-switch, one salesperson quotes a price that’s absurdly low. When the customer investigates, another salesperson claims that the original employee either wasn’t authorized to offer such a low price or gave the customer an incorrect figure. In any case, the second salesperson would love to show you something else the dealership has available for only a few thousand dollars more … Some dealerships even run advertisements promising very low prices on last year’s models or cars that have been on the lot for a while, and when the customer arrives, they talk him or her out of those economical loss-leaders and into something more expensive.

How to fight back: If you’re quoted a price that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If the salesperson won’t sell you the exact advertised car for the price he or she promised you, leave immediately.

“Perfect Timing”
No matter when you visit, somehow you’re always “lucky” to have stopped in that day. Early in the month, perhaps the dealership is “desperate to make up for last month’s lackluster sales.” At the end of the month, it’s “scrambling to reach its sales target.”

How to fight back: This trick makes you feel like you’re doing the dealership a favor by buying now. But even if the employees really are short of their sales goals—which could be true, although you’d never be able to verify it—you don’t owe them anything, and there’s no guarantee that you’re getting an especially good deal.

Saying No to “No”
In any high-stakes sale, good salespeople never give customers the opportunity to say no. They ask, “Do you want leather or cloth interior?” or, “Would you prefer the regular configuration or the sport package?” By getting customers to say yes to little questions, it increases the chance that they’ll say yes to the big question.

How to fight back: Don’t be afraid to say no anytime for any reason, whether you’re rejecting a particular model, the extra undercoating, or the complimentary cup of coffee. Take control of the situation, and assert your preferences in order to resist being led willingly down the “yes” path.

The Rush Job
Car salespeople want to move the customer from hello to handshake as quickly as possible, because they know that the less time the customer has, the less likely he or she is to ask probing questions or have second thoughts. Rushed customers make more impulsive decisions.

How to fight back: Eat before you go to the dealership, don’t schedule appointments back to back, and give yourself plenty of time so that you’re not feeling late or anxious. Bring a list of questions you want answered or features you want to investigate so that you don’t forget any.

Getting Invested
Salespeople want customers to feel invested in the sale and get them attached to the car. They know that test-drives and weekend loans make it more difficult to give the car back afterward. They also try to get you invested in them, telling you about their kid and trying to establish a friendly camaraderie. The more time you spend with a car and the salesperson, the more likely you are to buy, as well as pay more.

How to Fight Back: The car’s not yours until you sign on the dotted line, so don’t feel bad about giving it back. Also, the salesperson is not your friend. He’s trying to make money, and information about his kids or his pets is irrelevant.

Once you’re at the dealership, salespeople will do anything they can to prevent you from leaving, because if you leave without buying, they know you might not come back. If you gave them your car keys to investigate a possible trade, or if you have other documents to look over, the salesperson may suddenly go missing. You may find other cars blocking your exit, or perhaps the salesperson can arrange an audience with the manager “if you can just wait another fifteen minutes.” He knows that the more time you spend there, even if it’s just listening to him rattle off auto features, the more invested you’ll become and the guiltier you feel about leaving.

How to fight back: Remember that delay is a sales tactic, and even if you’re not in a hurry, tell him that you’re not willing to sit around all day while he talks with his manager. Don’t surrender your personal effects to anyone—that way, you can leave whenever you want to. If you find yourself waiting, get up and head toward the door. You probably won’t get far before someone comes after you.

The Guilt Trip
A salesperson might tell you, “I got in trouble the last time I authorized a deal this good” or, “If I take any more off the MSRP, I won’t be able to afford my kid’s tuition.”

How to fight back: Everyone’s got his own problems, and the salesperson’s are not yours to worry about. There’s no guarantee that what he says is even true. It’s common for salespeople to feign common ground with their customers to gain their trust or elicit sympathy.

Money Changes Everything
Car salespeople like to negotiate in terms of the customer’s monthly payment, asking, “How much are you looking to pay per month?” Once you tell them, they can finagle the numbers any which way to fit that figure, which will probably result in a higher down payment or a longer-term loan.

How to fight back: Always negotiate based on the car’s total cost, not based on a monthly payment, and don’t discuss your personal finances with the salesperson or reveal your total budget. Your personal financial situation isn’t relevant to your getting a good deal, and if the salesperson knows your limit, he’ll make sure you end up paying it.

Of course, not all car salespeople are dishonest hucksters, and these sales tactics are not limited to automobile dealerships. But whenever you’re on the lookout for a new car, remember that it’s in the dealership’s best interest to charge you as much as possible, and the salespeople will do everything they can to make that happen. By being on the lookout for coercive, dishonest, and pushy sales tactics, you can hold out for a better deal.

Updated on January 7, 2011


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