Wednesday, September 27, 2006

BEWARE OF DIRECT MAIL CAR ADVERTISING

Of course, you should be careful of all advertising…newspaper, TV, and radio, but direct mail can be especially deceptive. The reason this is so is because direct mail usually “falls beneath the radar” of the regulators. There are so many ads in violation of rules and laws that the regulators are overwhelmed. They focus on the most visible ads, often the ones that they see themselves in the newspaper or on TV. Direct mail represents a very small percent of total advertising. One reason for this is that it is considered by many advertising agencies to be too expensive and relatively ineffective. I believe that the only way to make direct mail effective for many advertisers is to use deception.

I have a couple of direct mail pieces on my desk and will cite some examples of this deception. “We will buy back your present vehicle for up to $5,000 over current Kelly Blue Book Value on trade towards the purchase of a Brand New Toyota or Pre-Owned model.***” The asterisk is for the very fine print disclosure on the back of the letter which reads: On select models. Discounts and rebates will vary from model to model. Of course, with the two words “up to” in front of the $5,000, no disclosure is really necessary. Buying back your present vehicle for $1 over current Kelly Blue Book Value is technically “up to”$5,000.

Attached to the letter is a something that looks like a check made payable to the recipient for $8,207. Here we go again with the “up to”. “You can apply this registered voucher for a discount ‘up to’ $8,207 off MSRP on a new Toyota.” Of course there is another asterisk which states “on select models”.

But there’s more! “Just for attending this event, you will receive 5 “golden” $1 coins as a gift, and you may have won $100, $250, $50, or possibly even $4,500 cash!” We, of course, have another asterisk which says that your odds of winning anything are 1 in 25,000. I often wonder who responds to these ads, not understanding the difference between a “golden coin” and a gold coin. Or, who really thinks they have a reasonable chance to win anything.

It’s not over yet! “Every application for credit will be immediately submitted and processed for approval and on-the-spot delivery REGARDLESS OF PAST CREDIT HISTORY”. Of course, the operating key word here is “submitted”. There is no guarantee of “approval”. They will simply “submit” your application to the bank and if you have bad credit, the bank will reject your application.

“During this weekend event, any new Toyota or used vehicle could be purchased with ZERO cash down!” The key word here is “could” instead of “can”. Of course, there is the old asterisk, which, if you can find and then read the fine print, it says with approved credit. You have to have a very high Beacon score to buy a new or used car with zero down payment. Less than 1% of car buyers would have this high a Beacon score. There is also a phrase which says “CASH DOWN IS NOT SUGGESTED”. This dealer might not suggest it but I can almost guarantee the bank will not only suggest it but demand it.

“Due to overwhelming response and customer request, I would like to again offer you a personal invitation to receive 80% of base original MSRP for the car you are currently driving.” This promise doesn’t even have an asterisk. Of course the base MSRP excludes accessories. Sometimes an offer is so ridiculous that you wonder who would ever believe it. Ask yourself how any car dealers could promise to pay 80% of the new base MSRP on a used car that they have never seen. They don’t know how many miles are on the car, whether it has been wrecked, or even if the car will still run.

Direct mail claims like those above, unfortunately do work. People actually come in and buy cars. Unfortunately these ads prey on those who are uneducated, have difficulty reading English, or are simply gullible.

THE LOWEST PRICED CAR CAN END UP BEING THE MOST EXPENSIVE

Too often car buyers focus on buying the car that fulfills their preferences of styling, size, and accessories that they can buy for the lowest price. There are other important cost considerations you should look at before buying the cheapest alternative.

Resale value is the number one consideration that is most often overlooked by car buyers. All cars depreciate in value, but some hold their value a lot better than others. You might save a thousand dollars by choosing to buy one used or new car over another more expensive make and model. But if the make and model that cost $1,000 more, held its value by $2,000 more over the 3 years you owned the car before trading it back in, the “lowest priced car” was really $1,000 more expensive.

There are several ways you can check on how much cars will depreciate. A good one is to check the resale value of that same make of car that is 3 or 4 years old. You can do that with a wholesale buying guide such as Kelly Blue Book, NADA Appraisal Guide, or Black Book. You can also find this information on the Internet. Kelly Blue Book, for example is www.KBB.com. If you are thinking about buying a 2007 car of a particular model and make, find out what a 2004 model sells for today. Compare other makes and models.

Maintenance and repair cost are the second biggest factors in measuring the true cost of a car. When a car has a relatively higher depreciation, one of the biggest reasons is probably because it is more prone to break down. Check Consumer Reports or surf the Web to find the projected repair histories of the cars you are comparing. Saving $1,000 on a particular make and model is not very significant when you are facing the cost of a blown transmission or engine.

Big cash rebates and big discounts are not necessarily a good thing. First you have to ask yourself, why is it necessary for this manufacturer to giving me such a big cash rebate (I have seen them advertised as high as $11,000) to sell his car? You will generally find that the manufacturers of higher quality, higher demand cars offer fewer rebates and discounts. These are also the manufacturers of cars that depreciate less and cost less in terms of repairs. Big rebates and discounts also negatively affect a cars resale value. It’s what you could call “vicious cycle”. A car is hard to sell because of its high repair costs and high depreciation so the manufacturer pays a big cash rebate to sell it. The rebate lowers the value of the used car of that make and model because the price of a used car directly tied to the cost of that same new car.

You will be surprised how much the color of the car you buy can affect the resale value. Think about it. The color was very important to you when you bought your last car. It is just as important to the person who will be buying the car you trade in. The most popular colors are white, silver, beige, and black. If you have a “thing” for green, blue, orange, or another unusual color, it can negatively affect the resale value of that car by over $2,000. I’m not suggesting that you always buy a white car, but if you like white, silver, beige, and black you are going to get more money for that trade-in than if you like blue and green. Bright colors can be good for certain models. Red is a popular convertible color for example.

Be sure to check your cost of insurance before you make a final decision. Cars with side air-bags, highly rated in collision and rollover tests, relatively low cost of repair especially for bumpers, and non high-performance cars have much lower insurance rates.

Cars are no different than any product that you buy when it comes to the principal of “the cheapest product is usually not the best value”. You buy a quality pair of shoes, paying more than you would for a cheap, poorly made pair because they will look good and wear many times longer. Shopping for the lowest price is a very good idea, but only after you have chosen a car that has low depreciation, operating costs, and cost of repair.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The “Check Engine Light” Just Came On!

Imagine for a minute that you and your family are on the expressway on a Sunday afternoon, driving to your favorite vacation spot. All of a sudden, your red check-engine light comes on! What are you supposed to do? You are hundreds of miles away from home and it is very unlikely that you will find dealers’ service departments for your make of car open on Sunday. Should you keep on driving? Your only alternative under these conditions is to try and find a motel for the night and find a dealer the next morning.

Unfortunately, the answer is that you should not continue to drive the vehicle any further than you absolutely have to. The problem that caused the check engine light could be any one of hundreds. Potentially, it could be a very serious problem that could be made more serious (and more expensive) by driving the car. It could also be something so inconsequential as you failed to twist the gas cap tightly enough the last time you filled the tank. I have never completely understood why car manufacturers don’t enhance the warning system to differentiate between small problems that can wait and those that could be catastrophic. What a shame it would be to ruin a family’s vacation because they failed to screw down their gas cap tightly or some other minor problem that could have waited weeks to address! My guess is that the reason manufacturers do not enhance their check engine light computer system is simply because of the increased cost. I’ll bet that the cost of a motel overnight would be a lot more than the manufacturer would have had to spend to make the stay unnecessary.

The vast majority of the time the check engine light comes on, it is not serious enough to rush to your dealer. The problem is that you can’t say for sure if this is one of those times. In fact, the service advisors in many dealerships are so used to check engine lights coming on for minor problems like loose gas caps that they often mistakenly advise customers not to worry about it and to bring the car in “when you get a chance”. This works 90%+ of the time, but that 10% when it is serious can be very expensive. In fact, if the car is under warranty and you continue to drive the car when the check engine light comes on, you could void your warranty. If your check engine light comes on, pull over to a safe place and check to be sure your gas cap is screwed on tightly. That is the problem more than half of the time. If that doesn’t make the light go out, bring the car to your dealer ASAP.

The dealer has a diagnostic machine, called a “scan tool” which deciphers the trouble codes stored in your car’s computer. This code doesn’t necessarily tell the technician exactly what the problem is. Usually it just indicates an “area of concern”. He must do further diagnostic tests to determine the exact problem. Often there are more than one problem and symptom. Sometimes a problem will cause the check engine light to go on and then the problem “goes away”. If the problem does not reoccur during a certain number of times that you start the engine, the trouble code is removed from memory. Most of the reasons your check engine light will come on are environmentally related. If our cars did not have to meet such tight emission standards, you would practically never have a check engine light go on. This is one of the prices we are paying for clean air.

All too often, the check engine light will come back on right after you have had your car worked on for that very reason. Many people immediately assume that the dealer did not fix the car right the first time and charged them for work that wasn’t necessary. This can be the case if the dealer’s technician was careless or wasn’t properly trained. But, not infrequently, the technician can do everything right and the light still comes back on after the repair is made. This is because there are often multiple problems that contribute to the symptom causing the check engine light to go on. Or, there could be a completely new problem unrelated to the first. Remember that there are hundreds of reasons that this one red light can come on. It takes a very well trained, conscientious technician to come up with the right fix.

The best thing you can do is to choose the dealer to whom you trust your car with great care. You do not have to have your car serviced at the dealer from whom you bought your car, but you should use a dealer franchised to service that make of car. Check with the Better Business Bureau, County Office of Consumer Affairs, and the State Attorney General’s office on the track record of the service department you choose. Ask friends and neighbors who drive your make of car where they have their car serviced how satisfied they are.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Translating Misleading Car Ads

In previous columns I have recommended that you avoid reading most cars ads in the newspaper and in direct mail. Most TV and radio car ads are similarly misleading. My suggestion is that you carefully choose the precise year, make, and model you want with the precise accessories and get at least 3 legitimate bids from car dealers on the Internet or, next best, at the dealerships. However, if you do find yourself perusing the large number of car ads in the local paper, here are some translations of common misleading ads. I took these straight from a local paper.

20% to 40% OFF MSRP. Never buy a car based on how big a discount you are quoted. Always calculate the price you are willing to pay based on an accurate understanding of the cost of that vehicle. Different makes and models have different markups and factory incentives can cause the true markup to vary widely. What sounds like a big discount may also pay the dealer too big a profit.

LIQUIDATION SALE. Most of the time you pay just as much for a car during a “sale” as you do without a sale. The only exceptions are factory incentives which do have an expiration date. A “sale” is what advertisers refer to as a “call to action”. They are looking for something that will motivate you to come in today, rather than procrastinate. It doesn’t seem to matter if the motivation is untrue.

UP TO $15,000 OFF. Many dealers have an additional markup on top of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, MSRP. They commonly label this a “Market Adjustment Addendum”. This can be thousands of dollars. Discounting a car thousands of dollars means nothing if the dealer just added a “Market Adjustment Addendum” for an amount equaling or exceeding the discount.

STK#62029A. When you see a number like this next to the price of a new car, it means that that is the only car you can buy for that price. The number is the stock number for that specific car which is supposed to tell you that this is the only car at this price. Many of these ad cars are of undesirable colors and accessories. They are advertised below cost and the loss is charged to advertising if they have to sell one. You chances of buying one of these are slim and none.

CREDIT PROLEMS ARE NO PROBLEM. This type of ad is particularly insensitive and distasteful. It is meant to attract people who have such bad credit that they think they cannot obtain financing. Unfortunately, there are people whose credit is so bad that no lender will offer them financing. These people are disappointed and embarrassed when they learn the truth that “credit problems can be, in fact, big problems”.

MINIMUM $10,000 TRADE-IN ALLOWANCE. This is just like the huge discounts. A trade in allowance means nothing if the car has been marked up high enough to offset the extra trade-in allowance.

WITH ACCEPTABLE CREDIT. This allows dealers to add a fine print disqualifier which is an extremely high Beacon score that disqualifies 99% of the car buying population. It is used in conjunction with very low lease payments or purchase payments. It is a “bait and switch” which affords the dealer the opportunity to raise your payments (and his profits) because your credit is “not acceptable”…to him.

PRICE GOOD ON DATE OF PUBLICATION ONLY. You will find this only in the fine print at the bottom of the page. This is added protection to the dealer, in addition to the stock # mentioned above, that he won’t have to sell you the car at the advertised price.

AS LOW AS or FROM. You will see this in smaller print next to a very big price and a big, pretty picture of the car. This is a further “C.Y.A.” for the dealer so that he doesn’t have to sell that car at that price.

WE’LL BEAT ANY OTHER DEALER’S PRICE OR THE CAR IS FREE. Some claims are so outlandish that I hesitate to bother warning you about them. Applying the old saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t” should protect most people from this kind of ad.

I could go on and on, but I hope I have already made my point. Car dealers’ ads are the absolutely worst way to decide which car you should buy and what price you should pay. When you respond to most car dealers’ ads, they are in control. You must take control and let the dealer respond to your carefully thought out and researched choice of year, make, model, accessories, and what price you offer to pay him.

Six Most Common Questions Asked by Car Buyers

At my dealership every other month we invite all of those who recently purchased a used or new vehicles from us to our “New Owners’ Event”. Our customers enjoy a buffet dinner and meet my customer relations manger, service manager, parts manager, top technician, and me. There is a lot of Q & A and here are the six most frequently asked questions with my answers.

(1) What grade of gasoline I should use? Use the grade of gasoline recommended by your manufacturer. Most cars run just fine on regular, but higher compression engines, and all V-8’s, require high test. There is absolutely no value to using a higher test, more expensive gas than your car’s manufacturer recommends.
(2) What brand of gasoline should I buy? I recommend that you stick with major national brands and avoid the independents. If you buy from Sunoco, Amoco, Mobil, etc, you are far less likely to get contaminated gasoline. Condensation and debris in your gas can cause some very expensive repairs. I also recommend that you buy your gas from the same gas station as often as possible. If you do have a problem, you will know exactly where it happened. Gas stations that do a high volume and regularly refill their tanks are less likely to have condensation or debris in their tanks.
(3) If I don’t put very many miles on my car, do I still need to bring it in every 6 months for service? The first recommended service is usually after 6 months or 5,000 miles. Even if you have driven only 1,000 miles in 6 months, you should bring it in to have your oil changed, your tires checked, and your car inspected. Time is as big a cause of wear on your car as is mileage, especially in South Florida with our high humidity, heat, and salt air.
(4) How often should I check my tire pressure? Having the correct tire pressure is one of the most underrated maintenance requirements on a car. Not only will maintaining correct tire pressure maximize the life of your tires, but it will increase your gas mileage, and make your car safer to drive by improving the braking and handling. Check your tire pressure at least one every month.
(5) How important is it to have my car serviced by the dealer rather than an independent garage? If you have a trusted mechanic or you are a competent “do-it-yourselfer” there is nothing wrong with having routine maintenance, like oil changes and tire rotations, done outside of your car dealership. I do recommend that you bring it to your dealer for checkups periodically and always for any kind of repair. Today’s automobile “is not your father’s automobile”. It is a very sophisticated, highly complex, computerized machine. Factory authorized dealers must invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in computerized diagnostic machinery and maintain a staff of highly trained technicians who specialize in that make of car.
(6) Should I use regular or synthetic oil? As long as you change your oil at least every 5,000 miles or 6 months (whichever comes first), you cannot go wrong with either. Synthetic oils are much more expensive than regular oils and are touted by some to be superior. I have heard pundits on both sides of this issue. If you choose to use synthetic oil because you believe it is better, be sure that you still change your oil at least every 5,000 miles or 6 months.

The Internet Price is the Lowest Price for a New Car

Ten years from now, I believe that at least 75% of all new cars will be purchased over the Internet. Right now it is less than 20%. The reason is simply that that Internet price is usually your lowest price and more and more car buyers are figuring that out every day. Dealers must give their best price to a prospect inquiring over the Internet because that dealer probably will have only that one chance to sell the car. If they try “the old negotiating game” the Internet prospect will simply choose the lowest price from several other quotes he gets. When my friends ask me to advise them on how to get the best price on a new car, I always tell them to use the Internet. If they ask me for the best price on my product, Toyota, I give them my Internet price.

I am not suggesting that you don’t visit your local dealer to see, touch, smell, and drive the new vehicles you are considering. This is very important. You can’t make a valid, final decision on which new vehicle is best for you by solely reading data and looking at pictures on the Internet, Consumer Reports, or any other source. Research of that nature is important, but you should finalize your decision with visits to the dealers to actually experience the vehicle.

Once you have made your final decision on the year, make, model, color, and accessories, you are ready to sit down at your PC and choose the dealer from whom you will buy this specific vehicle. If you are not handy with a PC, ask a friend or relative who is. First, go to the manufacturer’s Web site like www.ford.com, www.toyota.com, www.chevrolet.com, etc. You will be able to type in your zip code to find all of the dealers of that make within a given radius, usually about 40 miles, giving you 3 or 4 dealers. To expand the radius, choose another zip code further from yours. The dealers within your radius will show their Web site addresses. Click on their Web site and ask for a quote on the specific car you have selected. Most Web sites have a page for what is called a “quick quote”. You type in the year, make, model, color, and accessories. It will also ask you for your name, telephone number, address, if you have a trade (check “no”), whether you are ready to buy now (yes), and other questions. All you really need to fill out is year, make, model, and accessories and your email address. If you prefer not to be contacted by phone, don’t fill in the phone number. If they require it before you can submit your request, type in any 10 digits so that the Web page will allow you to. If you can’t find a “quick quote” page, just email your request to their Internet sales department.

Depending on your PC and typing skills this whole process should take less than half an hour. Think of all the time, gasoline, shoe leather, and especially aggravation you are saving compared to visiting as many dealerships in person. The time it will take to get back quotes varies from dealership to dealership. You may get some back within a few minutes, some will take a few hours, and some may take a day or two. Believe it or not, some might not respond at all. There are even a few dealers who will not quote a price on the Internet, but try to lure you into their store with false promises. Ignore them. I recommend that you get a minimum of 3 valid price quotes on your specific vehicle. It’s so easy to get quotes, why not get a half dozen or so? You are not necessarily even limited by driving distances. If the best price is from a dealer who is too far away, show that quote to a dealer nearer you and ask him if he will match it.

There are some things that you must be careful about. Be sure that that the price you get is an “out the door” price. That is a price which excludes only federal, state, and local fees and taxes which are usually just for tax and tag. Most dealers in Florida tack on a fee or fees of their own which are variously referred to as “dealer fee”, “delivery fee”, “documentary fee”, etc. This is illegal in many states, but not in Florida. These fees vary from around $500 to $900. Be sure that this fee which is just profit to the dealer is included in your “out the door” price. Also be absolutely certain that you are comparing “apples and apples”. When you select your low bid, double check that this dealer is quoting you on the same year, make, model, and accessories as the other dealers. A good double-check is to compare the MSRP. The MSRP, manufacturer’s suggested retail price, will be identical on identically equipped cars of the same model and year. Also, be sure that the car you have the price on will be there when you come in. Give them deposit on your credit card to hold the car for you.

Internet car buyers are the wave of the future. The retail car business is going through rapid changes and the old fashioned, price-haggling way of buying cars is slowly but surely becoming obsolete. If you haven’t already, now is the time to join the ranks of the smart, sophisticated car buyers.