A few weeks ago, KZLA disc jockey Barbara Barri went to Studio City Volvo to buy a new car. Already disillusioned by sales tactics she'd experienced on prior buying expeditions to other dealers, she was on guard when she entered the showroom.
There to greet her was Sally Fisher, the dealership's ace salesperson, No. 1 in sales for each of her 14 months of employment.
According to both women, the ensuing transaction was uncomplicated, straightforward and completed to mutual satisfaction. "She knew just what she wanted and she was easy to work with," Fisher said.
Barri recalled: "At work I'm my own engineer, yet in the past I've had car salesmen say things to me like, 'See, Honey, this is how you turn on the radio.' They've treated me like an idiot. Sally treated me like a human being. She showed me around, answered my questions and the entire process was quick and simple."
Barri and Fisher represent two elements that are changing the face of today's automotive sales industry: Barri, the independent professional woman who selects and purchases her own cars, and Fisher, one of a growing number of professional car saleswomen attracted to the industry in recent years.
According to Sonja Larson, president of Automotive Marketing Associates in Manhattan Beach and a 20-year auto-sales-industry veteran, the female segment of the car-selecting public has increased dramatically since the 1970s.
Citing a 1985 Automotive Age magazine article, based on a Conde Nast publications' study, she said that in that year, women were the primary decision makers in 55% of new-car purchases and were substantially involved in 85% of all car-purchase decisions. She also noted that the automotive-sales force in the nation was more than 90% male.
"Never before in the history of automotive retailing have dealers been so receptive to women in the sales force," Larson said. "They realize that the futures of their dealerships depend on customer satisfaction and women are the new auto sales professionals who can deliver that.
These statistics are not lost on the automotive industry.
With more women buyers than ever filling auto showrooms and a more sophisticated general car-buying public demanding knowledgeable salespeople and better service, dealers are actively seeking to upgrade sales operations.
Many of them are doing this by recruiting women for what has been traditionally male-dominated territory, and while they say that gender is not a major factor, many agree that women offer qualities that attract both new and repeat customers.
Chrysler-Plymouth dealer Bud Barish said: "We find that women are more patient than men, they follow up more, they keep records better and they're more orderly, stable and dependable. We'd hire more of them if we could find them."
Johnnie Shamoun, a Felix Chevrolet sales manager, said that women constitute 20% of his sales force and many of his customers, male and female, prefer to deal with them.
Beher Chevrolet sales manager John Dunn agreed: "Because they use less pressure, the sales go more smoothly, even though they may take longer. And women are easier to train than men--they're more attentive because it's a new field for them."
The main reason there are so few women in auto sales, noted Larson, is that "until now, women haven't been aware of the opportunities available to them in this $89 billion business. It's an exciting, challenging industry with great potential for financial gain and I think that bright, dedicated saleswomen can easily earn $50,000 a year or more.
"Not only is the money good, there are definite possibilities for advancement--dealers are trying to identify women with executive abilities. I want to see more women become involved in the profession," she said.
To that end, Larson has developed an auto sales training program, Women on Wheels, a series of three-day seminars, the first of which ran last week and will be offered again Nov. 6-8 at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel. The seminars, which cost $295 and are also open to men, are designed to recruit, train and place women in the auto sales force and focus on Larson's 10-point selling plan, which includes instruction in communications, prospecting, presentation, negotiation and follow-up.
"The old macho mystique about mechanical and math aptitude being necessary to sell cars just isn't true anymore," Larson insisted. "All it takes for a woman to be successful in car sales is good communication skills, a professional attitude and a determination to do well. As for mechanical ability, there are video training tapes and literature available--you don't have to be an engineer."