How Car Buying Is Becoming Less Awful—or At Least Less Time-Consuming

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Anyone who has sat through the endless “let me talk to my manager” runaround at an auto dealership would probably agree that buying a car is one of the most painful shopping experiences in the consumer landscape. But must this always be the case?
NPR recently ran a piece lamenting in the title, “Why Buying a Car Never Changes.” One source quoted in the story got right to the point, in blunter terms: “Buying a car sucks.”

The process of buying a car is purposefully confusing, starting with the somewhat meaningless sticker price and continuing on through the endless up-sells presented in back rooms, often hours after the buyer had hoped he’d already driven off the lot in his new wheels. To get a decent price, haggling is required, and the negotiations are the most-hated part of the process, according to surveys.

Beyond the confusion, the overwhelming lack of trust all around, the feeling like you must be on guard or risk being taken advantage of at every turn, not to mention the significant amount of money on the table, there’s the aggravating fact that the experience takes so much darn time. And given technological advances and the speedy one-click nature of consumer transactions today, it makes less sense than ever for the purchase of anything—even a high-priced ticket item like a car—to eat up an entire afternoon.

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Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, auto dealerships and various services are introducing ways to speed up the car-buying and negotiating processes, so at least the time-suck part of the experience sucks a little less for shoppers.

AutoNation, the country’s largest car dealership chain, is introducing new policies that basically own up to the fact that new-car sticker prices are meaningless, and that it takes entirely too much time for consumers to buy cars. “A new pricing strategy,” reports the Journal, “will base selling prices not on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price printed on the car-window sticker, but on current market data.”

This doesn’t mean haggling will disappear. But by disregarding the sticker price, negotiations can start with a more realistic figure. That’ll save everyone time. Add in that AutoNation’s sales staffers will have access to software that’ll allow them to quickly offer financing and leasing options to buyers, and the Journal states that the company hopes to “cut transaction times in half.”

The changes come as it has become increasingly clear that the age-old sales games are a waste of everyone’s time—dealership managers and sales employees included. Consumers do tons of research concerning car models, options, and pricing before ever setting foot in a dealership. When they show up, they’re looking for a specific product at a specific price point. “They’ve all done their homework,” AutoNation’s CEO Mike Jackson told the WSJ. “They don’t want to step into a process designed for the village idiot.”

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Let’s pause and reflect on that for a second: A car dealership executive is acknowledging that the process that’s standard in the industry is basically designed to rip off idiots. Breathe that in for a moment. OK, let’s move on.

Beyond the honesty of the statement, perhaps what’s surprising is that it’s taken so long for the idea to dawn on car dealerships that maybe it’s a bad idea to treat their customers like idiots. It’s also a bad idea to annoy customers by dragging out the car-buying process in marathon negotiating-and-upselling sessions. What’s more, by speeding the process along, sales staffers can obviously move more quickly on to the next customer.

Late last year, Automotive News noted that some dealerships have even been reviving the so-called “no-dicker sticker,” in which sales employees cut to the chase and offer take-it-or-leave-it market prices to buyers. The strategy is a win-win (for buyers and dealerships), one dealership executive told the trade publication:

“Your customers already really know about the car’s price,” says Alison Spitzer, the 32-year-old vice president of operations for her family’s 108-year-old Cleveland auto retail group, Spitzer Management. “Why put a price on the Web that you’re just going to have to spend an hour and a half negotiating down from?”

(MORE: Will Millennials Change How Cars Are Bought and Sold?)

Looking down the road, the no-dicker arrangement makes particular sense considering that millennials—the demographic that came of age with Internet shopping and will account for 75% of car purchases by 2025—hate haggling even more other age groups.