Monday, May 25, 2020

OPEN LETTER TO FLORIDA CAR DEALERS

SUBJECT: 
ELIMINATE HIDDEN FEES
Dear fellow Florida car dealer, I started in the retail auto business in 1968, about 52 years ago, and I have seen a lot of changes in the way we dealers sell cars and the expectations of our customers. My remarks in this column are made sincerely and with a positive intent toward you and your customers. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your business; I’m suggesting a change that will reward both you and your customers.

Virtually every car dealer in Florida adds a multiple, hidden charges to the price of the cars he sells, variously referred to as a “dealer fee”, “doc fee”, “dealer prep fee”, “tag agency fee”, “electronic filing fee”, dealer services fee”, etc.. This extra charge is printed on your buyer’s orders and is programmed into your computers. It has been regulated and minimized in many states including California. Florida has virtually no regulation and no regulation that is enforced. You charge these hidden fees to every customer and it ranges from a few hundred dollars tothousands. Florida law requires that you disclose in writing on the vehicle buyer’s order that these charges represent profit to the dealer. Florida law also requires that you include these fees in all advertised prices. You almost never do this, and another way that you get around the law by limiting the number of advertised vehicles (typically one).

The argument that I hear from most car dealers when I raise this issue is that the hidden fees are fully disclosed to the buyer on the vehicle buyer’s order. But most car buyers are totally unaware that they are paying this. Usually they negotiate the car purchase on your “worksheet” which is not a legal document. The legal buyer’s order is only “revealed” in the finance office when it’s spit out of the computer with dozens of other documents the buyer must sign. Who reads all the voluminous paperwork associated with buying a car? The few who notice it assume it’s an “official” fee like state sales tax or license and registration fee. Those few astute buyers who do question the fee are often told that your dealership must charge this fee on very car, which is untrue. These astute buyers are also told that all other car dealers charge similar fees. This is almost true, but, as you know, my dealership does not.

The reason you charge this fee is simply to increase the price of the car and your profit in such a manner that it’shidden from your customer. This is just plain wrong. Dealers will admit this to me in private conversations and some will admit that they have considered eliminating the fee as I did but are afraid of the drastic negative impact to their bottom line. By being able to count on an extra $500 to $3,000 in profit that the customer is not aware of or believes is an “official fee”, you can advertise and quote prices below cost and end up making a big profit. Or, if the price you quote the customer does pay you a nice profit, you can increase that profit by several hundred or thousands of dollars.

This “extra, unseen” profit is even better for you, because you don’t pay your salesmen a commission on it. That’s being unfair to your employees as well as your customers. When the rare, astute buyer objects to the hidden fees, the you can simply decrease the quoted price of the car by the amount of the hidden fees. This would have the same net effect of removing it. The salesman won’t do this because he’ll lose his commission (typically 25%) on the decrease in his commissionable gross profit.

If you don’t know me, I should tell you that I don’t profess to be some “holier than thou” car dealer who was always perfect. Although, I never did anything illegal, when I look at some of my advertising and sales tactics 30+ years ago, I’m not always proud. But I have evolved as my customers have evolved. My customers’ expectations, level of education, and sophistication are much higher today. Your customers are no different. As I began treating my customers, and employees, better I discovered that they began treating me better. Yes, I used to charge a dealer fee ($495), and when I stopped charging it many years ago, it was scary. But I did it because I could no longer, in good conscious, mislead my customers. Just because everybody else was doing the same thing did not make it right.

Now here’s the good news. My profit per car did drop by about the amount of the dealer fee when I stopped charging it. But when my customers realized that I was now giving them a fair shake and quoting the completeout-the-door price with no “surprises” the word spread. My volume began to rise rapidly. Sure, I was making hundreds of dollars less per car, but I was selling a lot more cars! I was, and I am, selling a lot of your former customers. My bottom line is far better than it was when I was charging a dealer fee. You can do the same!

Why am I writing this letter? I’m not going to tell you that I think of myself as the new Marshal that has come to “clean up Dodge”. In fact, I understand this letter is to some extent self-serving. Lots of people will read this letter to you and learn why they should buy a car from me, not you. And, I’m also aware that most dealers who read this will either get angry and ignore it or not have the courage to follow my lead. But maybe you will be the exception. If you have any interest in following my lead, call me anytime. I don’t have a secretary and I don’t screen any of my phone calls. I would love to chat with you about this. My personal cell phone number is 561 358-1474.

Sincerely,



Earl Stewart

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