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New Cars, Horror Stories and Refrigerators

August 14, 1994

I am writing to let you (car dealers) know that your full-page ad--your letter of "outrage" about The Times article on "Car-Buying Traps"--is an outrageous insult to the intelligent car-buying public. I also must tell you that the ad got a great laugh when I read it aloud in my office this morning.

The laugh was a communal laugh of recognition. Your basic assertion, that car dealers "are in the business to serve the needs of the customer," is absurd based on our common experiences. Most people would rather have root canal surgery than have to take the hard sell and complex negotiating tricks they know they are going to face at a car dealership.

Your letter seemingly reflects a grand state of denial or a rationalization of a crummy way of doing business. You say you "strenuously object to The Times writer's comment that 'not knowing the dealer's price' presents a trap for the buyer."

And you object that car dealers are held to a higher standard than companies like Sears in the sale of refrigerators, or American Airlines in the sale of airline tickets. This so obviously avoids the point: We don't, we can't, negotiate (in most cases) for refrigerators or airline tickets! If we could, we'd want to know, or be able to estimate, the seller's real cost.

If the "vast majority of car buyers are very sophisticated," as you state, why are they flocking to Saturn's non-negotiable price policy? The Saturn dealers I spoke to are the first to tell you: Their car is not radically different; yet people buy them because it is a less-threatening (dare I use the word pleasant?) car-buying experience.

I am one of the "sophisticated buyers" you refer to. And yet I'm sick to death of new-car buying. By and large, the sales managers I run into are seemingly looking to "trap" and "snooker" me.

The traps are out there. The negative tenor of car salespeople is out there, and you know it. If you don't know, go out to the dealerships--not as president of the California Motor Car Dealers Assn.--but as a regular guy. I will be shocked if you still assert that articles like Ms. Kristof's are offensive or unnecessary.

RICHARD LAMPNER

Burbank

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Apparently Ron Frieberg, president of the California Motor Car Dealers Assn., has not gone shopping for refrigerators lately.

Refrigerator salesmen do not take offers from potential buyers and respond with such classic lines as: "I really want to make this deal with you, but I'm not sure my manager is going to go for this. I mean, we've had a lot of people in looking at this fridge and it really could go at any minute. But let me take this offer back and we'll see if we can work something out."

Today's car buyers do not really care what a dealer's profit is on a car. We only care about the dealer's cost because your industry (with rare exceptions) insists on turning an automobile purchase into a day at the thrift shop. If dealerships continue to force buyers into negotiating over the price of a car, then buyers must by necessity know the dealer's cost.

If you were more concerned about fairness, rather than playing games with your customers, I am sure you could easily come up with a reasonable price for a car that would enable you to cover your "overhead" and still make a nice profit. This would contrast with the price at which you now list your cars, prices only truly uninformed people actually pay.

If Sears can quote one price on its refrigerators, why can't car dealers? If you were to charge a set price, no one would be able to claim that you were attempting to "trap" or "snooker" buyers again.

JASON K. AXE

Santa Monica

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