Monday, January 15, 2018

Bait and Switch Advertising

All car dealers pay the manufacturers the same prices for their new cars. Large volume dealers will lead you to believe that they pay less, but this is not true. So, when a car dealer advertises a price for a new car, he has no price advantage over his competition. This isn’t the case with most other products. Large volume sellers like Amazon, Walmart, Target, and Costco can negotiate much lower prices from the manufacturers than smaller “mom and pop” stores. Protective car dealer franchise laws lobbied into law in all 50 state legislatures require auto manufacturers to sell their cars to all their dealers at the same price.

Virtually all the prices for new cars you see advertised are so low that it would be impossible for a dealer to remain in business if he sold more than a very few cars at that price. The reason for this is that, if a dealer advertised realistic prices with a reasonable profit built in, another dealer would advertise a lower price. The dealer who advertised a realistic price is helping his competitor sell a car.

Most of the new car prices you see advertised are below the dealers actual cost. He protects himself by selling very few at this price and counting this loss as a cost of advertising. Next to an advertised car you will see some letters and numbers like, #5632A. That is the “stock number” of the car being advertised. This is all that the dealer does to tell you he has just one at this price. The chances are that if you are not the first person in the dealership on the morning of the ad, this car will be gone. Often these cars never existed, but you are told that the vehicle was sold.

Look for these two fine print disclosures at the bottom of the ad: (1) Price good on date of publication only. (2) Price good with copy of this ad only. These are just two more ways the dealer can avoid selling you the car at the advertised price.

If you’re a regular reader of my column, you understand about “dealer fees”. These fees are additional dealer profits ranging from $700 to over $2,000 that are added to the agreed upon price of the car by virtually every car dealer in Florida. They’re generally more than one dealer fee. “Dealer Fee” has become a generic term for phony fees like electronic filing fee, notary fee, doc fee, tag agency fee and many more. Florida law requires that this dealer fee be included in the advertised price. When the salesman tells you the advertised car has been sold but he has another one “exactly like it”, he can legally add back all of his dealer fees.

As you would guess, the salesman’s commission on an advertised car is often either zero or very small. Having no or a very small incentive to sell an advertised car, he will most likely encourage you to buy any other car.

My recommendation to you is to ignore advertised new car prices. If you must respond to an ad car, call the dealership first and ask if the car is still available. If the answer is no, you have saved yourself a lot of time and aggravation. If the answer is yes, ask if they will hold the car for you. If you must, offer to give them your credit card for a deposit to hold the car. If they won’t hold the car, save yourself the wasted trip.

The only way to get the best price on a new car if you’re dealing directly with car dealers is by getting competitive bids from at least 3 car dealers for the exact same year, make, model, and accessorized car with the identical MSRP. You can do this on the Internet, by phone, or in person. The Internet is likely to give you the lowest price. UseConsumer Reports magazine, the Internet www.edmunds.com and www.kbb.com are two excellent free sources of information), or even your local library. There are two other great ways to buy online, www.TrueCar.com and www.CostoAuto.com.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Dear South Florida car dealer:

You’ve probably heard of Earl Stewart Toyota, located in Lake Park, FL but you might think we’re located in North Palm Beach. We exercise “poetic license” and use North Palm Beach as our location because Lake Park is such a small town, population 8,155 as of 2017, few people know where it’s located. Last year, 2017, Earl Stewart Toyota sold 3,349 new cars and 1,934 used… 5,283 total vehicles!

As a car dealer in a large metro area like West Palm Beach or Delray, you must at least be curious how a car dealer in a small town with a population of just over 8,000 (including those too young and too old to drive) can sell more cars than you. In fact, for the last 14 years, Earl Stewart Toyota sold more vehicles than any new car dealership on Florida's east coast between Orlando and Broward County.

How is this possible? The answer is that Earl Stewart Toyota is selling cars to your customers in your town…Deerfield, Delray, Boca Raton, Boynton, Lake Worth, West Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens, Riviera Beach, Wellington, Stuart, Ft. Pierce, Port St. Lucie, Melbourne…in fact all over the state of Florida. Your next question must be “why is this happening?”

All car dealers claim to be honest, transparent, and to “love" their customers. This is clearly not so because the Gallup Organization in its annual poll since 1977 has ranked car dealers last, or almost last, in their “Honest and Ethics in Professions” poll, http://news.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx. At this dealership, they walk the talk.

1. Earl Stewart Toyota posts the lowest out-the-door price on every new and used car.

2. The prices Earl Stewart Toyota's customers are quoted by its sales people and advertisements are the same as its lowest online price.

3. Earl Stewart Toyota does not add dealer fees to the posted, quoted prices. As you know, the dealer fee is the generic term for the hidden profit you add to the price of your cars. You use lots of names to disguise it like electronic filing fee, processing fee, notary fee, doc fee, tag agency fee, dealer services fee, etc. Earl Stewart Toyota's prices are our lowest and out-the-door, adding only what it pays the state of Florida for the sale tax and license plate/registration. 

4. Earl Stewart Toyota does not pre-install dealer installed options or accessories and add these to its advertised prices. All options and accessories on cars it sells you are factory installed, unless you ask for them to install a special option after you buy the car. 

5. Earl Stewart Toyota sells you the car that you came into buy, and does not try to switch you to another car with more profit.

6. Earl Stewart Toyota gladly gives you its lowest price on any car you choose to buy and encourages you to shop and compare its price with the competition. They don’t try to switch you to leasing because dealers make more money leasing. The price its customers pay if they lease is the same price and profit to them if they buy.

7. Earl Stewart Toyota doesn’t ask its customers to trust them without reciprocating that trust. If the customer changes her mind for any reason after the purchase, they offer a100% unconditional moneyback guarantee for one week. This is a full cashback offer, not a “credit” on another car. There are no conditions and no fine print, the customer doesn’t even have to tell them why he/she changed her mind.

8. Earl Stewart Toyota offers real online, one-click Amazon-like car buying. A customer doesn’t even have to come into the dealership or talk to a salesman. They offer free delivery anywhere in Florida. The customer can pay with his credit card, bank transfer, or finance. 

9. Earl Stewart Toyota is the only car dealership I’m aware of that does not take away the customer’s right to sue the dealership if he/she feels she has a reason. All other dealers have an arbitration agreement in the fine print of their vehicle buyers order. This requires customers to waive their constitutional right to their “day in court”. An arbitration agreement requires that any dispute be resolved by a team of lawyers or retired judges. This “team” is chosen by the car dealer and their decisions often favor the car dealer. This is further evidence that Earl Stewart Toyota trusts its customers as much as they ask their customers to trust them. 

10. At Earl Stewart Toyota, there are no automated answer machines, secretaries, or anything else shielding anyone from direct access by all customers. One again, how can one expect customers to trust them if we don’t return this trust. My personal cell phone number is 561 358-1474 and every one of my customers has this number. All my managers…service, sales, body shop, parts, finance, and accounting make their cell phone numbers available to all our customers. We also have five RED PHONES strategically located around my dealership. My customers can pick up any of these phones and be automatically connected to my cell phone. We do this because we know we’re far from perfect and we do make mistakes; but what makes us different from other car dealerships is that our customers can always reach the person in charge who can make it right.

There, Mr. Car Dealer, you now have the 10 secrets to Earl Stewart’s success. All you must do is put them in place and be sure they are followed by your employees. If you do this, you’ll be able to sell as many cars as I do, or maybe even more! Excuse me if I don’t look worried, because it requires a lot of courage, trust, moral integrity, transparency, and HARD WORK.



Yours truly,

Earl Stewart

Monday, December 18, 2017

Should I Pay Cash for My Next Car or Finance It?

Most people don’t have any choice except to finance their cars. However, if you are reading this column, the chances are you are in that fortunate higher demographic income group, and can afford to pay cash for your next car. People who read newspaper columns and blogs tend to be more intelligent and affluent. But, just because you can, is it the right move?

Many people think they can get a better deal on a car if they pay cash. This was true 50 years ago before dealers discovered the new profit center referred to as the Finance and Insurance Department. Today this is not true. In fact, paying cash may even make the actual vehicle cost you more! The reason for this is that car dealers make money when they handle the financing with the bank or with the manufacturer’s lenders like Ally, Honda Finance, or Chrysler Credit. A dealer typically averages about $4,000 on every car he handles the financing on. Therefore, if the dealer’s minimum acceptable profit on the car’s markup was $1,000, he may sell it to someone who he could make $4,000 finance profit on for less than someone who he knew was a cash buyer. Dealers will sometimes sell a car for zero profit or even lose money on the car because they can make a good profit on the financing.

If you plan on paying cash for your next car, my recommendation is DO NOT TELL THE CAR DEALER THIS. Tell the car dealer that that you are considering financing with him. This will help you get a lower price because the dealer still has hope that he can make money when he finances our car. The average profit a car dealer makes financing cars is much larger than he makes marking up the selling price.

My second recommendation is check interest rates and terms with your own bank or credit union before you talk to the car dealer’s finance people. The finance manager (aka business manager) is on commission and paid a generous percentage of the profit he makes by marking up the bank’s interest rates and selling you extra “products” like extended warranties, GAP insurance, and car maintenance.

One argument in favor of financing a car is being able to keep your money invested, and earning a greater return than your interest cost of financing. There has never been a never time in our history that this is true. The bad news is that interest rates are not only at historical lows for borrowing but also for CD’s and interest income. With very good credit, you can finance a new car today for between 2% and 3%, but you can’t find a short federally insured CD for that amount. However, you can find very secure equity and bond investments that will earn considerably more than your cost of interest on financing a car.

There is one very important intangible reason why some people should pay cash for their car. That intangible is called “peace of mind”. My older brother, Doug, grew up during the Great Depression. When he built his new house, he paid cash for it. I couldn’t believe this and was severely critical of him. It was entirely illogical for him to pay cash when he could get a very low interest rate and home mortgage interest is tax deductible. His investments earned him far more than the interest rate on his mortgage would cost. After a while I finally realized why Doug was right and I was wrong. He paid cash for his home because it made him feel better. Growing up in the thirties, like many of my customers did, made an indelible impression on his emotions. Owning his home with no debt made him feel happy and secure and what could be more important than that?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Never Go Car Shopping Alone

I continuously get phone calls, emails, and texts from car buyers who mostly 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 sales person, not committed to writing. Bringing at least one other person when you are 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 this week in response to one of my columns. Her husband had recently passed away and this was the first car she had bought on her own. The dealer did not have the model car with the accessories she wanted and was unable to locate one at another dealership. She did not 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 others 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.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Buying Tires: Caveat Emptor!

In case you’re a little rusty on your Latin, “Caveat Emptor” means “Let the Buyer Beware”. This is something to keep in mind when you buy anything, but the danger of being ripped off when you buy new tires ranks right up there with buying and servicing your car.

Retailing tires is very important to, not only tire companies like Goodyear, Firestone, and Michelin, but independent retailers like Pep Boys and Tire Kingdom. In recent years car dealers have become very interested in selling tires too. The reason is that car customers too often don’t return for service and service is generally more profitable to car dealers than selling cars. Independent service departments and tire manufacturers’ retail service and tire outlets are taking away car dealers’ service business. Tires are something that you have to buy regularly for your car. Wherever you go to buy one or more new tires, the tire seller will take that opportunity to sell you additional services and products…you can bet your life on it.

Tires have become “loss leaders” for car dealers, tire factory service stores, and independents. When I say loss leaders, I don’t mean that you don’t end up paying the tire seller a profit on the tire transaction. What I mean is that the advertised price would result in a loss to the seller if he really sold it at that price. This is very similar to car advertising. Car dealers go through a great deal of thought and effort to advertise a price which is perceived to be lower than they will really sell you the car and tires sellers do the same thing. You can be sure that you can never buy a tire advertised on the Internet, newspaper, or TV for the price that you see.

To demonstrate this I chose one of the largest tire sellers in the USA, Tire Kingdom. I chose them because, as the leader, they set the pace in how tires are sold and advertised. Buying tires from other sellers, including most car dealers, will be at least as risky and often more so.

I sent in a mystery shopper to two Tire Kingdom retail tire and service outlets in Palm Beach County. My shopper responded to an ad for a special sale which is blanketing TV, newspaper and the Internet. The ad says that from August 1 to August 12 you can buy one tire and get the second one free. I watched the TV ad several times and it is literally impossible to read the fine print disclosure. By going to Tire Kingdom’s website, I was able to read the fine print, but the vast majority of respondents to this sale would come from TV and be clueless to the “gotchas” in the fine print.

The first revelation to my mystery shopper was that only certain makes and types of tires were eligible. No name brands like Michelin or Goodyear were available for this sale. Interestingly there was an inconsistency on this between the two Tire Kingdom stores we shopped. In fact, there were several inconsistencies between the stores on types of tires, prices and other procedures.

To me the biggest deception was that the tire buyer was required to purchase “road hazard insurance” and a wheel alignment. The prices on the insurance ranged between 14% and 18% of the total price of the tires and the prices of the wheel alignment ranged from $114.99 to $79.99. The advertisement didn’t say they are advertising a package deal for tires and road hazard insurance and wheel alignments. But the fine print (indecipherable on TV) disclosed this condition. Being required to buy a four-wheel alignment is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, buying a wheel alignment should be your decision and not tied to the purchase of tires. Secondly, what if your wheels don’t need an alignment? You may have had your four wheels aligned two hours ago, just now run over a nail in the road, and now have to buy a tire.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! The fine print also tells you that you must pay $1 per tire for the state tire tax. This is a real tax but it should be included in the quoted prices. There’s another fee you are charged which is a “tire disposal fee” which Tire Kingdom can charge you any amount they like. It’s not specified. The truth is that Tire Kingdom actually sells many of their take-off tires to used tire dealers for a nice profit. I do the same thing in my dealership and that profit off-sets my cost of having take-off tires hauled away and disposed of. And the final “gotcha” is the infamous “shop fee” which usually is 10% of the full retail price of the service invoice with a cap of $35. Now remember that there is no legal prohibition or cap on “tire disposal or shop fees”. Tire Kingdom imposes their own caps and prices on these rip offs. Other tires sellers are left to their own chutzpah and imagination to gouge you to limit of your tolerance.

BUT WAIT THERE’S STILL MORE! In the fine print is “No carry-outs”. I’ve seen this in some restaurants, but it’s an unusual term for Tire Kingdom and other tire sellers to tell you that before you can buy their tires at their advertised price, you must pay them whatever they want to charge you for mounting and balancing those tires.

I’ll end this article with constructive suggestions of how you can avoid these sorts of unfair and deceptive advertising and sales practices. Refuse to play the tire sellers games. Demand an “out the door” price for the specific brand and style of tires you want. Make it clear that it must include all federal, state, and local taxes, all fees like shop and tire disposal, all extra services like alignment, all extra products like road hazard insurance, and all services associated with putting the tires on your car like mounting and balancing. Ideally you should do this on the telephone and make it clear that you have only one check left in your checkbook and you will be filling it out at home for the total amount due, an out-the-door price. Of course, you should do this at least three times with three different tire sellers and buy them from the one who gives you the lowest price.

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Lemon Law: Unhappy New Car Buyers’ NUCLEAR OPTION


Lemon laws are state laws which give rights to purchasers of new vehicles if they find that they have bought a car with a defect that cannot be fixed in a timely fashion by the dealer or the manufacturer. The first lemon law was the results of the efforts of a great California consumer advocate, Rosemary Shahan. Every states lemon law is somewhat different but they all have a lot in common and are aimed at the same result. Most car buyers have misconceptions of the lemon law. These are some the most common ones: The car owners think they are going against their car dealer when they are really going against their car’s manufacturer. If you prevail it costs the car dealer nothing. The manufacturer pays. The law applies only to cars purchased as new, not used. If you win a lemon law dispute, the manufacturer or dealer does not simply replace your car with a brand new on. The amount of credit you win toward a replacement vehicle is arrived at by deducting a charge for the usage of your lemon car based on time and mileage.

The complete lemon law process is a difficult and time consuming task for all concerned…you, the car dealer, and the manufacturer. It’s difficult for you because the law requires specific and extensive documentation. You must have allowed your dealer to try to fix the problem at least three times and you must have detailed written documentation of this. You must be sure that your complaint is clearly spelled out by the dealer on your repair order and that his failure to fix it is also a matter of written record. After three times, you must notify the manufacturer by certified letter that you are invoking the lemon law. Now the manufacturer has one last chance to fix your car. At this time, the manufacturer may take your car to another dealer who he feels is more competent in repairing your car. If the fourth attempt to fix your car fails, your case is assigned to a board of arbitrators. Their ruling is final. This entire process usually takes a very long time. A time of several months is not uncommon. Meanwhile, you’re saddled with a car that has a problem nobody can fix.

When you formally invoke the lemon law with your certified letter, you sever all communications with the manufacturer other than formal, legal communications as dictated by the law. The manufacturer considers you a legal adversary and their attorneys consider anything they say to you as something that can be used against them in the arbitration. At this point they are legally barred from fixing your car or talking to you about fixing your car.

All of the above is why I advise that you use the lemon law only as a last resort…the nuclear option. Put emotion aside and focus on what your purpose should be which is to have a car that you can drive without the problem that has been driving your crazy since you bought it. Your priority should not be to punish the dealer because as I already said, he suffers nothing from your winning a lemon law decision. You are punishing the manufacturer to some extent, but this is “business as usual” to all manufacturers who fight (and usually win) thousands of lemon laws annually. What I’m suggesting is that you might want to consider giving the dealer and manufacturer a little more time to fix your car after the first three attempts. If they look like they are sincere and trying hard, it could save you a lot of time driving your broken car (not to mention the mental anguish) compared to waiting months for the lemon law process to work itself out.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t tell the dealer and manufacturer that you will invoke the lemon law if you have no other choice. You definitely should do that. You should let both the dealer and the manufacturer know in no uncertain terms that you have meticulous documentation of their failed efforts to fix your car, you have familiarized yourself completely with the specifics of your state’s lemon law, and you will not hesitate to invoke it if you are left no other choice. This will instill a sense of urgency to fix your car ASAP if it’s within their abilities. The reason is the dealer and the manufacturer want to keep you as a customer. In fact, the dealer may stretch to give you a better deal on a new car to replace yours than you would ever otherwise have gotten. He can’t do that once the lemon law has been invoked because he would be trading in a “lemon”. A “legal lemon” has the same stigma as a flood car or totaled car that has been rebuilt. The manufacturer not only wants to keep you as a customer but wants to avoid the cost of arbitration (the manufacturer is responsible for all of the costs), the cost of disposing of a lemon, and the cost of the damage to their reputation by chalking up another lemon laws loss in the record books. For more information about the lemon law, Florida residents can call the lemon law hotline,800 321-5366 or you can click this link: http://www.myfloridalegal.com/lemonlaw.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Caveat Emptor and Car Dealers: You Can Fool Some People All of the Time

Almost everyone has read Abraham Lincoln’s popular saying, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” I think Abe meant this to be a positive assertion that government may get away with deceiving us for a while, but in the long run, truth justice and the American way will prevail…and I think he was right.

However, it doesn’t work that way with unethical car dealers and car buyers. It always has been “caveat emptor”, or “buyer beware when it comes to buying or servicing a car. Unfortunately for a buyer to “beware” he must be “aware” …that is to say educated, mature, sophisticated and experienced. This excludes a very large segment of our population including the very young, the very old, the uneducated, those with low I.Q.’s and those not proficient in the English language. This is one reason why our regulators and elected politicians don’t seem to care or act with respect to the rampant unfair and deceptive sales practices of a large number of Florida car dealers? Most elected officials and regulators are lawyers and are highly educated and sophisticated. They don’t have a problem buying or servicing a car. In fact, the car dealer that tries to take advantage of a lawyer, regulator, or politician is asking for trouble.

I’ve been writing this column/blog and broadcasting my radio show, Earl Stewart on Cars, for about eight years. I sometimes feel that I’m “preaching to the choir” when it comes to advising people how to avoid getting ripped off by a car dealer. You, my readers and listeners, largely fall into the category of the educated and sophisticated, “aware” buyer. Most of you aren’t taken advantage of when you buy or service your car because you won’t allow it. Unfortunately, there are enough uneducated, naive, and otherwise vulnerable consumers to feed those unethical car dealers who prey on the defenseless among us. All you must do is read some of the car ads online or watch some on TV. To the educated, sophisticated buyer, these ads are funny, if you can forget the fact that so many fall prey to them and are taken advantage of by the dealers. For example, it’s hard for you or me to believe that anybody would respond to an advertisement without reading the fine print. Many dealers today are advertising prices that, when you read the fine print, are understated by many thousands of dollars. When you or I see a dealer stating that the car price is plus “freight”, we are educated enough to understand that the law requires that the freight cost be already included in the price. A shrewd buyer knows that “dealer list” is not the same thing as MSRP and that a large discount from “dealer list” means absolutely nothing. We know that the “lowest price guarantee” is worthless if the dealer reserves the right to buy the car from the other dealer that offers a lower price.

There are those who argue that all buyers have the responsibility to guard against unethical sellers, to take care of themselves. In fact, that’s the literal translation of the Latin legal term “caveat emptor”…let the buyer beware. That’s sounds good, but what about the elderly widow whose husband recently died and who never had to make the decision on a major purchase in her entire life? What about the young person just out of school with no experience in the real world? How about the immigrant who struggles with English? Should we be concerned about our underprivileged classes who often drop out of school because they must go to work to support themselves or their family? You and I know lots of good people who, for one reason or another, simply can’t cope with a slick car or service salesman.

My bottom line is this, since we can’t rely on our regulators and politicians to protect those who “can be fooled all the time”, maybe we owe it to society to protect these folks. If you know someone who is thinking about buying a car or has a service problem with her car and you feel she may not have the ability to fend for herself with the car dealer, offer your support. If you’re one of the people who needs support, ask someone who can go “toe to toe” with a car dealer to come with you when you are car shopping. By the way, nobody, sophisticated or not, should car shop alone. Two heads are always better than one and it’s always a good idea to have a witness to what was said during a negotiation. And, of course, if you don’t have the time to help a person or you’re that person, you can always call me…I’m always here for you.