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VERY FIRST PERSON

Elegy for a Dream Weaver

In a World Where Mice Move Metal, Wherefore the Car Salesman?

November 19, 2000|PHILIP REED | Novelist Philip Reed is a writer for Edmunds.com. This is his first story for the magazine

It's not what you do . . . It's who you know and the smile on your face!

--willy loman, from arthur miller's "death of a salesman"

*

I'm standing outside the dealership with another car salesman when one of those extreme SUVs that are so hot we "can't keep 'em on the lot" rolls in. I tell my friend I'm going to start calling my list of customers who are shopping for one of these babies. Then he stops me.

"It's another [expletive] Internet sale," he says, pointing at the sold sign in the windshield reading CarsDirect.com. "Why do they sell these things over the Internet? Give 'em to us, we could get a grand over sticker. But no--they've gotta sell 'em at invoice. Does that make sense?"

It doesn't make sense to us, the car salesmen, because our lives depend on the difference between the invoice price and what we can sell it for. This is the profit. From the profit comes our lifeblood--the commission. I work on "straight commish," and so does every other salesman on this Los Angeles-area car lot. If a salesman doesn't sell, he doesn't feed his family, or pay his rent. His life depends on his ability to move metal, to paint pictures with words, to sell dreams. And the dream is very simple: the right car will bring you happiness.

So salesmen position themselves between you, the buyer, and your happiness as embodied by a gleaming, freshly detailed, fully loaded, top-of-the line luxury sedan, or SUV, minivan or pickup. You want a car. We want your money. And, unexpectedly, I've become a part of this dysfunctional relationship.

I became a car salesman in the middle of a life of doing something very different. I arrived, it turns out, just in time to see the death of America's most enduring antihero. The tragic figure of the new millennium isn't Willy Loman. He's the stereotypical car salesman we love to hate, the over-the-top huckster who used to wear plaid but now tends toward gold jewelry, goatees and combed-back hair. He'll do anything to close you, then will hide in the service bays if you return to complain about the car. Soon salesmen will paraphrase Richard M. Nixon--"You won't have me to kick around anymore."

Most people would say that's a good thing.

"Five years from now we'll all be gone," the Internet manager of our dealership told me one day as we wolfed lunch in the break room. "Dealerships will just be a place where people pick up cars they ordered from the factory. I hate it."

The Internet manager used to sell cars on a lot in Universal City. Now he wanders our dealership wearing a telephone headset, answering Internet leads, jumping at the command of mouse-pushing shoppers. He's cutting deals--and cutting out his commission. It's all about price now. And the Internet, the new god of business, slashes prices by cutting the fat from the delivery chain.

*

IRONICALLY, I WAS SENT TO WORK AT THIS DEALERSHIP by the Internet. I was hired by the consumer auto Web site Edmunds.com to get a job as a car salesman so I could learn their ways. But then, just like in those movies about going undercover in the mob, I became friends with the enemy.

The car lot is a great collision of humanity. I was thrown in with people from all over the globe. My world as a novelist and freelance writer had become so safe I'd forgotten about the messy lives many people lead--the divorces and child custody, the bad credit and repossessions, drifting from job to job. Despite their chaotic lives, salesmen arrive at work each day hoping they'll hit a home run, get a "pounder"--any deal with more than $1,000 profit for the salesman.

When you sell cars, you get to look professional when you're often not. You wear a shirt and tie. You deal with large sums of money. You negotiate using psychology, work the numbers, tell corny jokes. Hell, you'd tap dance on raindrops to make a sale. Because, as I'm discovering, it's a rush to sell a car.

A friend of mine who spent 20 years selling stereo equipment said that making a big sale gives you a sense of power. It's a high of approval. In sales meetings they tell us: "Customers aren't looking for a car to buy. They're looking for a salesman to sell them a car."

*

ON THE FIRST DAY OF SELLING CARS, MY ASSISTANT SALES MANAGER (a "closer" who is brought in to finalize the deal) begins training me. He assures me that selling cars is actually very easy, "as long as you're right up here," he says, tapping his forehead. He wants me to succeed because my success is money in the bank for him. So he teaches me his best tricks. The ones that always work when you have a customer "in the box" (the sales office).

"Oh, here's a good one," he says, glancing around, leaning over his desk and showing me how to work the four-square worksheet, the salesman's tool.

The four squares are the most important figures of a car deal: purchase price of the car, trade-in value of your car, down payment and monthly payment. If the salesman loses ground on one figure--say, purchase price--he'll make it up on another figure such as trade-in.

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