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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Owner of the Car Dealership is Accountable


Congress passed a law a few years ago that really “shook up” publicly owned companies. It’s called Sarbanes-Oxley, named after the Congressmen who sponsored the bill. Basically this law says that the CEO and other high echelon management of a public owned company cannot get of the hook from wrong doings because he claims he didn't know what his employees were doing. I believe the same rules should apply to all businesses, even if their stock is not publicly held. The boss should always be held accountable for the actions of his employees and this should apply especially for car dealerships.

Most of the employees that the customer comes into contact with in a car dealership are paid on commission. Those employees get a percentage of the profit that the company makes on the transaction. Car sales people, service sales people (also called service advisors or assistant service managers), parts sales people, and the mechanical technicians who work on your car are mostly all paid on commission. This method of pay tilts the relationship between the customer and employee in somewhat of an adversarial manner. The employee wants the profit to be as high as possible but the customer wants it to be low. In a car dealership that has talented, fully engaged, and ethical management, this potentially adversarial relationship is kept in a fair balance. Without the oversight of upper and middle management and careful hiring practices, some employees will exploit a customer to increase his commission.

What brought the subject of this column to mind was a call I received yesterday from a 78 year old widow from Ft. Pierce. She called to thank me for writing my column and to tell me that she wished she had read some of my columns before she bought her 2005 used Mazda. This was the first car she had bought on her own. Her husband had always taken on this responsibility. She paid the dealership a huge profit on her purchase. She was sold a maintenance package that she believed cost only $25 but it really was $2,500. She was rushed to sign the papers at night because the dealership was closing. In the morning, when she realized the mistake, she drove back to the dealership and asked to back out the sale but was told it was too late. She was told she had signed all the papers and that they had already sold her trade-in even though she had not given them the title.  When she asked to speak to the General Manager, three different employees identified themselves as the General Manager. I get a lot of sad calls like this.

The owner of that dealership should know what’s going on. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt by saying that he doesn’t know because if he does know it’s even worse. The owner should look at the big picture and the long term view of his business. You can take advantage of customers and benefit in the short run, but you eventually “pay the piper” when your bad reputation spreads far enough. Most of the bad things I hear about car dealers from their customers are not illegal things. They are simply unethical and not the way one human being should treat another. Refusing to refund the money of an elderly, widow after she realized that she had been taken advantage of is not illegal, but it sure “stinks”. Jim Press is the top executive for Toyota over all of North America and he is also the only non-Japanese to occupy a place on Toyota’s board of directors. He was quoted in the book, The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker, as saying “It’s what you do for a customer when you don’t owe him anything that is the true measure of character. It’s like sticking up for somebody who can’t defend himself”. I really like this quote and I have it engraved on a plaque which I give out each month to the employee who wins the “Above and Beyond Award”. This award goes to our employee who does something for her customer above and beyond what the customer would have expected.

If you have a bad dealing with your car dealership, do your best to contact the owner. This is impossible with publicly held dealerships like AutoNation and United Auto Group, but you should be able to talk to their General Managers. If it’s privately owned dealership, don’t give up until you see the owner.


Monday, September 17, 2012

CAR BUYERS BEWARE OF “THE BOX”


OK, you've just bought that new or used car and the pressure is off…right? WRONG! The next step for the car dealer is to get you into the “box”. You won’t hear this word mentioned. It’s inside car dealer slang for the F&I office or the business office. This is the place that you sign all of those papers making the sale legal and final. But in addition to that, it’s also a very important profit center for car dealers. In many car dealerships it’s the most profitable department. It’s not uncommon for car dealers to make an additional $1,000 profit or more in “the box” on each car they sell.

Here’s how that profit is generated. First and usually foremost is making money on the interest they charge you. Essentially, they make money on “the spread” just like banks make money when they loan it. For example, a car dealer will borrow money from Bank of America for 2.9% and loan it to you for 5.9%, or whatever interest rate they can convince you to accept. The second way they earn that big profit in “the box” is by selling you “products” which are added to the price of the car you just bought. There are many products and some of the most common are extended service warranties, maintenance plans, road hazard insurance, GAP insurance, window etch, and LoJack.

The way you should protect yourself on the interest rate is to have already shopped your own bank or credit union and two other banks for the best interest rate you can qualify for. Never go into “the box” without knowing what the best rate other banks or credit unions will allow you. The best way to protect yourself against the products they will try to sell you is to completely understand each product. Do you want or need an extended warranty on your new car? If this product costs $1,900 for example, how long are you going to keep the car and how long are you likely to be driving it when it’s out of the manufacturer’s warranty? Ask the same questions of each product they try to sell you. If you are unclear on the merits of a product, do not commit. You can always go home and think about and seek advice from friends and advisors.

Another important tactic that I recommend is to never go into “the box” alone. If it’s just you and the F&I manager [often called business manager], and there is a dispute over what was said, it’s just your word against his. Also, having a friend or advisor present will usually be a deterrent to any attempted deception.

These are some of the kinds of deception you should be on the lookout for. Tying the sale of a product like an extended service contract to the interest rate or eligibility to have the bank finance your car is illegal. But this practice happens all too often behind the closed doors of the “the box.” The F&I manger may tell you that the bank “requires” you to buy the extended warranty, GAP insurance another product in order to protect the bank’s collateral. This is simply a lie and it’s illegal for banks or car dealers to do this. Another  common form of deception is to simply not disclose the products or interest rate and have you sign the contract without reading it. There are a large number of documents to be signed after you buy a car. Buyers are often in a state of euphoria now that they have bought their dream car and are in too much of a hurry to sign everything and drive their new car home. The car dealer is required by law to give you a signed copy of the installment sales contract. Be sure you carefully read it and be sure have a copy. If you don’t get a copy, you may find that you signed a different contract than the one you read.

Extended service warranties, GAP insurance, and other insurance products are regulated in Florida unlike many other states. This affords you some degree of protection like being able to cancel an insurance product as long as you did not use it. You can do this in 60 days for a 100% cancellation. You don’t get the cash back and your monthly payment won’t go down however. But the amount is taken off the principal amount you are financing through the bank. You cancel insurance products after 60 days, but the cancellation is not pro rata and you pay a large penalty.

If you remember nothing else from this article please remember this one thing. Do not hurry the process of financing your car and signing the papers. Do not let the car dealer encourage you to sign anything you don’t understand. Time is on your side because it will allow you to think and to consult with others who can help you make your final decision. I get a lot of calls from victims of “the box” and the one thing they all have in common is that they let themselves be rushed into signing the documents so that they could drive their dream car home that same day. 



Monday, September 10, 2012

How much is that auto in the window?


 
I’m writing this article on Monday, September 10, 2012. I copied the title and the illustration above from an article in today’s Wall Street Journal. I’m not guilty of plagiarizing because I’m giving credit to the Wall Street Journal and the reporter, Charles Passy who wrote the article. After what happened to Fareed Zakaria, I want to be very careful. You can read the entire article online by clicking on www.earlstewart.com/pdf/WSJ.pdf.
The Wall Street Journal reporter interviewed me several times over the past month for this article. I sent him copies of invoices, buyer’s orders, dealer addendum labels, and names of people I knew around the US who were experts on unfair and deceptive advertising by car dealers. It was important to me because having what I’ve fought against for so many years written about by a national publication adds credibility. Not only does the Wall Street Journal have the largest circulation of any newspaper in America, but it’s also arguably the most respected daily publication.

One might ask, why don’t local newspapers write stories about car dealers’ unfair and deceptive sales and advertising? The answer, like so many, is “follow the money”. Every local newspaper has an auto advertising section with most of, if not all of the dealers in that market. Newspapers seem to be the advertising choice of many dealers, although TV has definitely cut into their revenue. In large metro markets TV ads are so expensive that most dealers have no choice but to use the newspaper. Car dealers are the single largest source of ad revenue in many newspaper markets.
Now I know that journalistic ethics require a separation between the news, editorial, and advertising departments. But that’s the way it used to be. Today local newspapers and even some national ones are struggling for survival. Ethics go out the window when it comes to survival. Would you steal food for your child if you had no other recourse?

Another reason that I’m encouraged by this Wall Street Journal article is that every auto manufacturing executive reads this newspaper every day, especially articles about automobiles. Also, most car dealers also read the Wall Street Journal. Reading a negative report about deceptive car dealer sales practices in a highly respected national newspaper has got to get their attention. Many manufacturers and most car dealers seem to be in denial about how they endeavor to trick their customers with misleading, false ads and sales practices. I’m a Toyota dealer and I was shocked when Toyota recently removed the financial penalties from violating the Toyota Dealer Advertising Covenant, TDAC. They said they did this based on a request from the national dealer council. The TDAC was created over ten years ago to establish ethical guidelines for Toyota dealers’ advertising. It was written with the input of dealers and all dealers had to sign to promise to abide by its tenets. An example of a tenet would be that a dealer cannot advertise a car for a price unless he will actually sell the car for that price…no “bait and switch” advertising. As you would agree, laws are not effective without penalties and Toyota used to fine dealers very large sums for violating these advertising covenants. Now, there are no financial consequences for a Toyota dealer violating the TDAC. Other manufacturers have similar covenants but enforcement and and penalties are rare.
I have to believe the auto industry will awaken one day and realize that almost all other retailers in the 21st century have left car dealers in the dust. Most car dealers are still employing the “get ‘em in the door any way you can and make as big a profit as you can get away with” shabby tactics that were common practice fifty years ago. Most manufacturers and some dealers are beginning to realize that car dealers are held in the lowest esteem of any other retailer. Car sales and service complaints top the list and car dealers rank dead last in the professional ethics ranking, tied with congressmen, lobbyists, and lawyers.

I tell manufacturers and my fellow dealers that if we don’t regulate ourselves, you can bet the government will step in and do it for us. As I write this article, the Federal Trade Commission is conducting hearings all around America asking for input about unfair and deceptive trade practices by car dealers. If the government steps in like they did with our nation’s banks, car dealers and manufacturers can expect to be up to their eyeballs in expensive regulations, red tape, and bureaucracy.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

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.