Monday, April 06, 2020

Coronavirus, Car Dealers, and Consumers

Deservedly and not unexpectedly, there’s a huge amount of negative media focus on the consequences of COVID-19. Call me a “cockeyed optimist”, but I believe that, in the aftermath, one positive result will be making it possible for car buyers to get an honest, transparent and competitive price when they buy a car.

This will happen as car dealers realize that almost nobody is coming into their showrooms to buy cars. They’re already advertising that they will deliver the car to your home, but the problem is you must buy it first. If a car buyer is to maintain safe distancing during the CD-19 threat, she doesn’t want to visit the car dealership, interact with car salesmen, and will try to buy the car online.

I’ve always advocated shopping for the best price online. For one thing, you can shop and compare prices at a lot more car dealerships on the car you choose. You can also maintain your anonymity by not revealing your real phone number and using a different email address. This eliminates the annoyance of multiple calls from multiple car salesmen. Car dealers know that and will “dig in their heels” on giving you an honest, out-the-door price. They don’t want you to compare their price with their competition.

Last week, I mystery shopped, online, Palm Beach Toyota in West Palm Beach, FL on a new Camry. I told them that because of the Coronavirus crisis, I wanted to buy my car completely online without leaving my home. The only price I was able to get was MSRP, and I knew that even that price wasn’t out-the-door because Palm Beach Toyota adds over $1,000 in hidden dealer fees. They asked for my phone number, but I told them I preferred to communicate online (I used a Yahoo email address under a pseudonym). When I said that I would not buy the car until I had an out-the-door price, all emails stopped. I sent them an email this morning saying that I had contacted five Toyota dealers, and only one had responded with an out-the-door price. I said, if I don’t hear back from you by noon today, I will ask that Toyota dealer to deliver the new Camry to my home. I finished this column and waited until noon today (Monday, April 6) for a reply from PB Toyota. There was no reply and, had I been a real buyer, they would have lost

It will take car dealers a while before they realize that they have no choice, but to give you their best out-the-door price. April will be a VERY BAD sales month for all car dealers and May will be even worse. Lots of car dealers and some manufacturers will go out of business. Those car dealers that want to survive will have to sell cars at lower prices than their competition. Because the number of customers that buy a car will be, at best, half of normal, the car dealers that survive must give the customers what they demand…an online out-the-door price.

As I write this article, nobody knows for certain how long this crisis will last or how severe it will be; it will end, and everything will eventually get better, but retail buying, including cars, will never return to normal. The new normal with car buying will be better than what has been going on for over 100 years. The Coronavirus will bring an end to the haggle/hassle, bait-and-switch, hidden fee style of selling cars that has always been.

My wife, Nancy, and I are pretty much quarantining ourselves like most Americans. I conduct my business meetings by www.Zoom.com or conference calls. Our groceries and everything we buy are delivered from Publix, Costco, Walmart, Target, and the king of online, AMAZON. We love it and will never go back to the old way. We shop and compare to ensure the lowest price. We select the products we buy after reading online reviews by verified purchasers. Deliveries are very fast, next day or 2 days 90% of the time. Most purchases offer unquestioned returns for full credit. Millions of Americans who didn’t do most of their shopping online have had to and will continue to have to for months. They will have tried online and fallen in love with it before this crisis ends. THEY WILL NEVER GO BACK TO THE OLD WAY OF RETAIL.

It’s a good think Amazon came along and threatened the other retailers a few years ago. It forced the smart ones like Walmart, Costco and Target to seriously get into the online business. Those that didn’t perished or soon will. It took a worldwide pandemic to get the car dealers’ attention, but now it’s their turn.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Economic Threat to Auto Industry

(Huge Opportunity if You Need to Buy a Car)

“No idea or behavior shift has ever spread more quickly or completely in the history of the planet. In seven weeks, the life of every single person on Earth changed, and the unfolding tragedy and the long slog forward will drive expectations for years. Expectations about being part of a physical community, about the role of government and about what we hope for our future.”

I copied and pasted this introductory paragraph from a blogger I follow religiously…Seth Godin. His words on the Coronavirus describe these times perfectly.

When I woke up this morning, before I had my coffee, I had an eerie feeling…” maybe this is a bad dream!” I know this is an old cliché, but if there was ever a time when it fits perfectly, it’s today. We’ve all had bad dreams that, during the dream, we wondered if this is a dream…usually that’s when you wake up. I’m pretty sure I’m not dreaming.

I’ve mixed emotions about writing on the Coronavirus/COVID-19. This blog/column is entitled “Earl on Cars” and maybe I should be explaining how you can avoid paying too much for your next car. On the other hand, all human beings on our Planet are thinking or talking about survival…physically and/or economically. Today, a car can be important to both your physical and economic wellbeing; so, I’ll advise you on how to buy or lease one during the Corona Crisis and get, not just a good price, but probably the best deal ever on a new or used car.

Auto manufacturers and dealers are as desperate as you. When this crisis passes, there will far fewer auto manufacturers and dealers than today. I’m a car dealer who sells a very popular make of car, Toyota, and my business stinks. Most manufacturers and car dealers aren’t as fortunate as I, and many with less popular makes won’t survive. Sensing this, car dealers and manufacturers will do whatever they can to outsell their competition, if they want to be among the “survivors”.

If you’re a regular reader of mine, you’ve heard me say, “Competition is your friend”. One thing all auto manufacturers have in common is being fiercely competitive. GM must outsell Ford, Toyota must outsell Honda, Mercedes must outsell BMW, etc. Expect the biggest discounts and rebates as well as lowest interest rates and payments. Today is not the time to rush out and buy or lease a car. Time is on your side as the COVID-19 pandemic peaks. Current predictions point to the end of April. Now is a good time to begin your homework…due diligence. Study Consumer Reports to decide exactly what year-make-model vehicle you want to buy. Once you do that, put out some price “feelers” online. Shopping online, you can expand your radius as far as you want to. If you want to buy a Cadillac, you can shop 3 or 4 dealers or 30 or 40! Time is on your side because you won’t be making buying decision until the end of April. This gives you time to “separate the wheat from the chaff”. Some dealers won’t satisfy your demand for an out-the-door price which includes ALL charges including dealer fees, dealer installed accessories, and tax and tag. An out-the-door price is the number you can write on your check, present it to the dealer, and drive the car home. Once you have at least 3 out-the-door prices on the exact year-make-model vehicle, you’re ready to strike at the end of April…the optimum time to buy a car.

On Thursday April 30, contact your “finalists” (at least 3) and let them know you’re going to buy your car from the dealer that reduces his price to you by the most. Reemphasize that their price must be final, out-the-door. At even the mere “hint” of a shenanigan, you’ll vanish, and they’ll never see or hear from you again.

My regular readers know that you should arrange your own financing with your bank or credit union. The only exception is low interest financing offered by the manufacturer. If you have a trade-in, you should have already shopped its value with Carvana, www.WeBuyAnyCar.com, CarMax, and AutoNation. Also, get bids from the used car departments of dealers that sell the same make of car as you’re trade-in.

If you follow these guidelines, I strongly believe that you will get the best deal on your next new or used car that you ever had; but let me close with one big caveat. You’re getting a great deal because car dealers and auto manufacturers are desperate. Desperation inspires both giving you a great discount or tricking you into believing you’re getting a great price when it’s not. Caveat Emptor/Buyer Beware. Good luck, and stay safe.

Monday, March 23, 2020

WORLD CRISES & U.S. LEADERS

Please excuse this column’s deviation from Earl Stewart on Cars automotive theme. I started to write a column on “How not to get ripped off by your car dealer”, but it seemed rather unimportant in view of the Coronavirus threat.

My father, Earl Stewart Sr., was born in 1892. He was an avid Republican and disliked Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

I’m old enough to remember that he strongly supported Harry Truman in World War II because he was our president and the leader of our country. After the war was over, he regressed to referring to President Truman as “that G.D. Haberdasher”. 😃

He told me that he also supported Franklin Roosevelt during WWI.

The Coronavirus, Covid-19, is potentially a greater threat to humanity than WWI or WWII. As I write this, nobody knows just how many lives will be lost or how much damage it will have on the world economy. We must hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

There’s almost no one alive today who was alive during WWI and very few that were during WWII. History tells us a lot about how the “free world” survived those times. Survival is our strongest instinct and the USA did what had to be done for us and the rest of the free world to survive. Looking back on some of the decisions our leaders made, there’s lots of controversy…Interring Japanese Americans in camps in California, killing millions of innocent civilians in Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and knowingly sacrificing 37,000 American and allied soldiers during the Normandy Invasion. Arguments are made today on both sides of these and many other issues; but during WWII, there was no time for arguments or even compromise. Time was of the essence and our survival was at stake.

Much of what our leaders did to win those two world wars is still unknown. Censorship and secrecy will keep us from knowing everything done to ensure victory. But the bottom line is that we won and are not a German or Nazi state today…neither is the rest of the world.

Here we are in the 21st century when secrecy and privacy are almost nonexistent. Freedom of speech allows everyone to criticize and object to anything or everything. Everything is subject to debate and decisions are usually based on compromise. During an emergency, a crisis, these rights can slow us down.

To come out of this crisis as quickly as possible, we must decide and act as quickly as possible.Our leaders must put aside personal animosities, and political differences. We should send a message to our politician’s that we U.S. citizens, Democrats and Republicans, will “bury the hatchet” until covid-19 and our shattered economy are history. We can tell our elected leaders, Republicans and Democrats, that we want swift and strong legislation even if one side or the other doesn’t get everything they want. We should all watch our leaders carefully and, when they come up for reelection, remember those that played petti politics with our lives during this crisis and vote accordingly. I’ll vote for the Republican or Democrat who swallowed his or her ego and pride for the sake of winning WWWIII.

There’ll be plenty of time for political attacks and mindless partisanship AFTER we’ve defeated the Coronavirus.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Coronavirus “Catch-22”

Stay Home if You Might Have the Coronavirus

But If You Don’t Go to Work, You Won’t Get Paid


Catch-22 Definition (logic) A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations.

This column is directed to all businessmen, especially retailers like car dealers, department stores, etc. I’m sure, Mr. Businessman, that you’ve told your employees that they shouldn’t come into your workplace if they have symptoms that might be the Coronavirus. That gets you off the hook because you warned them, but how effective do you really expect this directive to be?

A lot of your employees, either cannot afford to go without a paycheck, or don’t want to. Human nature is such that some will come to work anyway, possibly even concealing their symptoms. Lots of employers don’t provide for sick pay or, if they do, require a doctor’s certificate to qualify. Many employees receive substantially less pay while off sick than they normally earn…especially commissioned employees.

I know what you’re thinking…a lot of my employees will take advantage of my generosity and “have a paid vacations” at my expense when they’re feeling just fine. You’re dead wrong! If you show your employees that you care for them and trust them, they won’t take advantage of you. Oh, maybe one or two will…there’s always a chance that we have a rotten apple in our barrel. But that’s a small price to pay to protect all your employees and customers, not to mention your business.

Sure, you can wait for the federal government to come to the rescue, but you know how long it takes politicians and federal bureaucracy to act. You can count on two things; politicians aren’t going to say or do anything that won’t help them get elected and the Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on anything.

If you truly want to make your workplace safer for your employees and customers, give them an incentive to stay home that they can’t refuse. Pay them as much as they would earn while staying home as they would in on the job. Pay commissioned employees based on their average earnings. Yes, this can get expensive, but not nearly as expensive if one or more employees spreads the virus to your other employees and customers. You’d be forced to close your business.

By the way, a fringe benefit of this is to build confidence in you from your employees and customers. You can’t put a price tag on that…it’s truly priceless. After the Coronavirus is “yesterday’s news”, your company’s brand and your brand as a leader will have grown substantially. I promise you that you’ll recoup, from increased sales and profits, all the costs of paying employees for staying home and then some.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Voted the Best Car Dealer in Palm Beach County

Regular readers of my newspaper columns and blog know I avoid promoting myself and my car dealership, Earl Stewart Toyota, in North Palm Beach, Florida. My weekly radio show (Earl Stewart On Cars), YouTube videos (www.YouTube/EarlonCars, public speaking engagements, and my book (Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer) represent my efforts as a consumer advocate to help you avoid being ripped off by car dealers.

A year ago, a friend called to congratulate me for winning a contest sponsored by Palm Beach County’s newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, as the Best New Car Dealership and the Best Auto Dealer Service Department in Palm Beach County for 2019. I thought she was kidding because I didn’t even know there was a contest! I don’t advertise in the Palm Beach Post. One of my customers, employees or friends must have nominated my dealership in the contest without my knowledge.

2019 was the first year for this contest which was held again for 2020 and Earl Stewart Toyota won again! You may be wondering why I’m bragging about being the best car dealer when this column is supposed to be written by a consumer advocate giving you advice on how to buy, lease, maintain, or repair your car without being taken advantage of. That’s a fair question, and please allow me to answer it.

I really have two goals as a consumer advocate: (1) Equip you with the awareness, caution, and knowledge to protect yourself from being deceived by car dealers and (2) Set an example for car dealers to prove that ethics, honesty, and transparency with their customers is actually good for business.

There are literally dozens of car dealerships in Palm Beach County selling every make of car available. I have only one dealership. I sell new Toyotas which represent only about 15% of the new cars sold. I’m one of four Toyota dealers in Palm Beach County. Palm Beach Toyota, Southern 441 Toyota, and Delray Toyota are the others. Eighty-five percent of the new cars sold in Palm Beach County are sold by those dozens of other car dealerships that sell everything besides Toyota. Many car dealers in Palm Beach County own multiple dealerships…Schumacher, Napleton, and AutoNation for example. For more people to vote for Earl Stewart Toyota than those car dealers with multiple locations, I must have had car owners that don’t even own a Toyota voting for Earl Stewart Toyota.

At this point in this article, I am addressing all the car dealers in Palm Beach County who were not voted number one. I know you must be upset that you lost to me and you might not understand why a car dealer with only one location in a small town like Lake Park, FL (we’re technically in Lake Park but I use North Palm Beach in my name because so few people know where the small town (population 9,000) of Lake Park is. Logic must tell you that for me to win this contest, I must have received votes from other than Toyota owners that I sold. You must wonder why some of your customers must have voted for me. They voted for a Toyota dealer when they buy Hondas or Chevrolets!

Here’s why they voted for my Toyota dealership even though they like the make of car you sell more. (1) I don’t add over a $1,000 in hidden fees (aka dealer fees) to my advertised prices. (2) I don’t add over-priced, dealer-installed accessories to my advertised prices. (3) I post my lowest, out-the-door price on ever new and used car I sell. (4) I offer a 7-day UNCONDITIONAL moneyback guarantee on every new and used car I sell. (5) I don’t hide from my customers. I give every customer my personal cell phone number and have 5 red phoneslocated around my dealership that connect directly to my personal cell phone. Every Earl Stewart employee must adhere to the Earl Stewart Code. Check it out at www.EarlStewartCode.com.a

Monday, February 10, 2020

Why Do Car Dealers Lie about their Prices?

You probably already know that you can’t buy a new or used car for the advertised price; the out-the-door price always ends up thousands of dollars higher. Car dealers are the only retailers that routinely trick their customers like this, at least to the degree that car prices are understated.

Have you ever wondered why virtually all car dealers do this? Imagine that you owned a Ford, Honda, Chevrolet, or Toyota dealership in Southeast Florida. Each of these car brands has as many as 20 dealers and no fewer than 12 selling the IDENTICAL product. Toyota has 19 car dealerships between Ft. Pierce and Key West. Every Toyota dealer pays Toyota the exact same price for their cars; but Toyota dealers don’t sell those cars to their customers for the exact same price. They mark up each car as much as they can…the highest price that the customer will pay. If a Honda dealer sells 25 identical Honda Accords in a given month, the likelihood is that each sold for a different price; the typical variation in profits on the identical vehicle can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Let’s say you owned a Honda dealership. The Honda manufacturer gives you a quota…a minimum number of Hondas you must sell monthly and annually to fulfill your contract allowing you to sell Hondas and often to receive volume cash bonuses. The only way you can do this is to price your Hondas “competitively”. But, you also must maintain a high enough markup on each Honda, so that your dealership remains profitable. This is the “Catch 22” and dilemma of all car dealers. A South Florida Honda dealer has EIGHTEEN other Honda dealers advertising the same cars he sells. If you advertise a Honda Accord for a higher price than most other Honda dealers, you won’t sell enough to meet your quota; if you advertise that Honda Accord for a lower price you’ll sell lots of Accords, but you’ll lose money on every car.

Therefore, all Honda dealers and all car dealers of all makes see only one viable course of action. Advertise their cars at a very low price, lower than their competition (and lower than they can or will sell the car for), so that the customers will come in to buy. Once the customer is in the dealership, the “games begin” to raise the advertised price to a price as profitable to the dealer as he can negotiate. The tools the dealers use to accomplish this are many…hidden profits (aka dealer fees) disguised as government fees, dealer pre-installed accessories, and switching the customer to a different vehicle or a lease rather than a purchase.

Car dealers see themselves as having no choice but to sell cars this way if they’re to remain in business. They blame their actions on the auto franchise system and there is some truth to this. Apple sells you iPhones directly, but Toyota cannot sell you a Toyota directly; car manufacturers MUST sell through their dealers. This system is mandated and entrenched by state law in all 50 states. The manufacturers created the dealer franchise system in the early twentieth century because they couldn’t sell their cars fast enough directly. Once a critical mass of dealers was created by the auto manufacturers, the dealers organized and lobbied their state legislatures to created laws protecting their franchises from the manufacturers. The main reason they did this was because the manufacturers were granting franchise agreements to too many dealers…” over-dealering”. Too many car dealers selling the same car in a market creates too much competition because it drives the prices down. Unfortunately for the dealers, there were (and are) already too many. Today, car dealers are overprotected, enjoying exclusive markets with state laws making it almost impossible to control, much less, eliminate even the most “problem” car dealers.

The auto franchise system is over 100 years old and obsolete, but it’s entrenched and will remain for the foreseeable future. New vehicles will, one day, be sold online directly by the manufacturers and maybe even through Amazon or Walmart. Vehicles will be built to order and delivered within a week. The price you see will be the price you pay, and you will be able to return the car for a full cash refund if you change your mind. Service, maintenance, and repairs on modern vehicles is minimal. Separate service centers will still exist to handle this need. Service centers will also have new vehicles of each model for you to inspect and test drive. Tesla is doing today exactly what I described, except for the one-week delivery time and unconditional moneyback guarantee.

But there’s a larger reason why car dealers get away with their deceptions. That is “because they can”. Auto manufacturers realize they’re stuck with the dealer franchise system and “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. Auto manufacturers have huge political lobbying clout and, when you add the car dealers and their associations’ money, state and federal politicians have no choice but to “play ball”. There are about 17,000 franchised car dealers. They have enormous lobbying power nationally through NADA, the National Auto Dealers Association, and they also have enormous lobbying power in all 50 state legislatures. The political donations that Big Auto and Car Dealers give politicians make the NRA look small by comparison.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Never Go Car Shopping Alone

I frequently get phone calls, emails, and texts from car buyers who have already bought a car. The “horse is already out of the barn”, and they want me to give them advice on how to get it back. Most of these car buyers went car shopping and bought their car alone. Most of the complaints are associated with verbal promises by the salesperson, not committed to writing. Bringing at least someone with you when you’re car shopping doesn’t negate the importance of getting all promises in writing, but substantially lowers the chances of a car salesman trying to pull a fast one. The salesman and his manager know that, in court, two people’s word trumps one.

A woman wrote me a letter in response to one of my columns. Her husband had recently passed away and this was the first car she’d bought on her own. The dealer didn’t have the model car with the accessories she wanted and was unable to locate one at another dealership. She didn’t want to decide without seeing the actual car she wanted to buy, but the salesman and manger talked her into signing a buyer’s order, assuring her that she was under no obligation to buy. They also included two accessories that she did not want because “the manufacturer required it”. I’ve heard of distributors ordering cars with certain accessories from the manufacturer which essentially makes them “standard”, but never “$250 floor mats” which was one of the accessories she mentioned. I get a lot of emails, phone calls, and letters from people who made a bad deal in their car purchase and want to know how they can get out of it. This is one of the less egregious, but I chose it because it was a simpler and shorter example.

There is strength in numbers when shopping and negotiating to buy a car. In fact, this applies to any serious decision in life. You might be the sharpest, shrewdest negotiator on the block, but your odds of striking a better deal and not get taken advantage of are enhanced when you have witnesses on your side. Personally, I make a habit of always having at least one partner when I am engaged in a serious, adversarial decision-making process. When meeting with those on the other side, I make it a point to arrive with at least as many people as they have present. One reason is the psychological factor. When you are in an office by yourself with 2 or 3 others, it can be intimidating. Another reason is that you always have people on your side to corroborate what was said. If a salesman or a sales manager makes a verbal promise that can be corroborated by a friend or two, it is far less likely to be broken. It will also hold up in court, if it must come to that. Of course, the better solution is to see that all promises are committed to writing.

Buying a car, especially a new car is often an emotional decision. Having a friend or two with you can help you make more of an analytical, logical decision. Another point of view is always useful when making an important decision. Also, having one or two friends with you slows down the process to a level more easily absorbed and understood by you. A friend will often think of a question you should have asked but forgot.

Ideally you should bring someone with you who is skilled in negotiation and experienced in buying cars. However, if you don’t know someone like that, somebody is better than nobody.

By the way, most car dealers are unhappy when prospective customers bring in advisors and friends. Naturally they feel that way because they recognize their chances of making a fast, very profitable sale are diminished.