Things aren’t what they used to be…thank God!

There is the possibility that today’s car buyer doesn’t know how lucky they are. Plush showrooms, 82 different varieties of tea and coffee, comfy armchairs and attentive staff, not to mention the red carpet treatment any legitimate buyer can expect these days. Before venturing out to the dealership’s well appointed premises there’s the sheer volume of information available at the click of a mouse. If you’re in the market for a new or used car then it’s quite possible to find out the tiniest detail of your prospective purchase from the comfort of your own home. You can research model variants and, most importantly, prices before you ever set foot in the showroom. They say knowledge is power and today’s car buyer has more power than ever.

It wasn’t always this way however. Back in the ‘good old days’ the balance of power was strongly in favour of the dealers and salespeople. In fact sales people used to be sent on high pressured selling courses which would bring them back as lean, mean, closing machines. Control was the showroom mantra and customers would need to fall in line with the dealer’s process if they wanted the privilege of buying a car. It shows just how much the business has evolved when we see how the tables have turned and the key to this is knowledge. We have often heard salespeople exclaim ‘this guy knows more about the product than I do!’

Although we still believe that buying and selling cars is a relatively simple process it’s the people involved who can complicate it. At least buyers, if they choose to, can now empower themselves to be in a position where they can, at the very least, negotiate a good deal even if that does mean playing dealers off against each other.

In the past a potential buyer had to make do with a grainy photograph in the local rags motoring section which was only updated if the sales manager could be bothered and the information about each car could be sketchy to say the least. Because booking a half page ad could easily cost the national debt of a reasonably sized South American country, sometimes only a fraction of dealer used cars were even advertised.

As for new cars, forget it! You had to ask for a brochure, which dealers were reluctant to send out, or visit the showroom and be subjected to hours of grilling, where salespeople were safe in the knowledge that only a small minority would have the stomach to repeat this process given the time and sheer strain of trying to remember every detail about each car and what price had been negotiated.

I know all this because I was one of those salespeople who relied on the lack of knowledge and time people had to make customers buy from me. Ironically in my present position I often find myself in showrooms where the volume of sales is far more evenly spread. In previous years 60% of the week’s sales would be done on a Saturday or ‘dealing day’ as we called it. Indeed in some showrooms, so reliant were they on selling large volumes of cars at the weekend, that if we didn’t have at least 5 qualified appointments for Saturday we either stayed late on a Friday until we did or we weren’t allowed to come in and we had our demonstrator taken away from us for the weekend!

There was something satisfying about going home on a Saturday knowing you had sold 3 or 4 cars and, though you were often tired and had lock jaw from the amount of talking you would do, it just made those few beers taste that little better.

From the customer point of view because they couldn’t gather information so easily the weekends were the only time that they actually had enough time to attempt to buy a car and after a few hours would often surrender knowing they may have to travel a long way to try and compare if they wanted a similar model. So really the cards were all loaded towards the salespeople and perhaps indicates why profits were so much healthier in those days as trying to compare would be virtually impossible without actually visiting the showroom.

The problem today is that, although buyers can now locate any information on any car in any part of the country in seconds, it also brings another problem in that there can often be too much choice and buyers will often try to cut dealers to the bone because they think that is the right thing to do. It may pay to remember that if the dealer can turn a fair profit the customer is far more likely to receive great service and rightfully so. It’s just that sales people can spend lots of time and care ensuring that the customer can buy the right car, only to find that they could lose the deal because another dealer who has put nothing into the customer can shave a couple of hundred pounds off just to beat the deal offered.

If we could take a little of the old lots of the new and season with a little common sense we could have a thriving business with everybody winning, or is that just too much to ask?

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