Monday, December 03, 2018

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.

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