Pity the poor car salesman. Though he or she may diligently go to work every day trying to make a living like anyone else, the American people just can't warm up to him or her.
When it comes to qualities like honesty and integrity, survey after survey has the auto salesman's knuckles scraping the bottom of the barrel alongside those of politicians, insurance agents and telemarketers.
Is it fair? Not really. Despite Web sites filled with consumer vents against lying auto salesmen, there's no real evidence that they lie more often than anyone else does. If a car salesman claims that his lot's signature sedan offers a smoother ride than other guy's, is that any more dishonest than a brand of toothpaste claiming it gets teeth "as white as they can be" or a sign in a café window touting the "world's best coffee?"
It's all called marketing — which most people know to take with a grain of salt. Let's face it, life is a sales game. Companies and people make money by touting their product as being better than the competition's, whether or not it's actually true.
So why do car salesmen have such bad reputations? Probably because for most people, a car is their biggest single purchase other than a home. Combined with negotiable prices and lots of options to sort through, customers take trickery very seriously — a lot more than if a brand of food or laundry detergent failed to live up to its hype.
And of course there are the maverick salesmen and saleswomen, those hard-nosed, ethically challenged types who will stop at nothing for a sale. It's this group that tends to bring down the industry's reputation, spoiling the broth for the honest salespeople. They're not necessarily any more prevalent at auto dealerships than at a Wall Street brokerage firms or anywhere else. But again, car buyers making that once-in-five-years big purchase tend to notice them more. And there's no SEC or Nasdaq looking over their shoulder.
Why do dealership owners keep them on? They typically sit atop the sales charts — that's why. Industry reputation is one thing, but business is business. Unless you're talking about repeated serious violations that could invite legal action, no boss is going to get rid of his golden goose.
And some of the lies passed on by members of this sales force minority are true whoppers, further dragging down the industry's reputation.
Among the most egregious is an old scam called "price packing," in which a salesman agrees with a customer on a price for a car, then "packs" hundreds of dollars extra onto the final bill by claiming finance charges add up to a few more dollars per month than they actually do. All but the most astute customers would ever notice the difference.
Another bill-padder is excessive labor fees for pre-delivery work like audio system upgrades or larger wheels, also easy to disguise by adding just a handful of dollars a month to the final finance charge.
For the most part, though, car dealers engage in the same occasional white lies as anyone else. To create a sense of urgency, tell the customer he won't get the same price after the first of the month (that's sometimes true, but more often it's not). To lure prospective buyers to the showroom, put deceptive ads in the local paper that headline big price reductions but relegate higher financing terms to the fine print.
So why can't buying a car be more straight forward and haggle-free, where the price on the sticker is final? Because we, as a society, don't want that. General Motors' Saturn unit tried that approach a decade or so ago, and it flopped. The public has shown it likes to do battle with the car salesmen figuring they have a chance of winning — about as large a chance as winning the lottery, though.
Still, people keep arriving at car dealerships bracing for a fight. Some clearly relish the challenge, almost as if they're reliving their high school football days, trying to stare down a big rival. Nothing makes a buyer happier than driving off the lot with the car he wants and thinking he beat up the salesman for a good deal in the process.
It takes two to tango.