The process of buying a vehicle has a lot of moving parts. You have to haggle with salespeople over price, negotiate with banks and finance managers for a loan or lease and try to strike a deal for your trade-in. Mistakes will cost you, so preparation is important.
“The salesmen are very specifically trained to separate you from your money,” says Jeff Bartlett, Consumer Reports’ managing editor for cars. “This is a skill they practice daily, whereas the average car buyer buys a car every five years or so. This isn’t a fair fight.”
Recognize some of these gambits and you stand a better chance of getting what you want out of your next car purchase.
What affects a car salesperson’s tactics?
Car salespeople are usually under pressure to maximize the profits on each vehicle they sell, and their behavior with customers is influenced by this reality. Their income is based on commissions from vehicle sales, for which they’re paid a percentage of the dealership’s profit.
The more a car salesperson convinces you to pay for a vehicle, the more profit they make. Their commission may be as high as 25 percent of the vehicle’s final sales price, says Ronald Burdge, a lemon law attorney.
In addition, car salespeople are paid bonuses by dealership management for selling cars that may have been sitting on the lot for an extended period of time. This bonus is on top of the typical commission they make for selling the vehicle in the first place. There are still more bonuses from the car manufacturer for salespeople or the dealership when meeting a sales quota on a particular model year or vehicle model, says Burdge.
The behavior of salespeople is also impacted by the time of month. “Dealerships operate on a monthly sales cycle, so at the end of the month the sales staff is particularly anxious to make more sales happen,” says Burdge. “At the beginning of the month it’s usually more about the profit made per sale — so how much profit is to be made on each vehicle sold.”
Car salesperson tactics
Car salespeople may employ any number of tactics when getting you to buy a vehicle. Here are some of the most common tactics you could encounter.
1. Playing out the clock
Some car salespeople use time as a tool, says Bartlett. They’ll draw out the process until you’re tired and hungry, which weakens you.
If you go into the dealership intending to go through the entire process in a single day, you may find that it takes far longer than you expect. Part of this is the car salesperson using time, and your impatience, to their advantage.
Your strategy: When you do arrive at a dealership, immediately set the pace of the process by saying something like, “I’m here for a test drive. Tomorrow, I’ll come back and talk numbers.”
When you return to the dealership ready to make a purchase, don’t let yourself be taken hostage. Say: “Give us your best price.” Then, if the salesperson offers to go back and forth negotiating with their manager, tell them to text or email you the results.
2. Psychological profiling
Car sales staff receive extensive training about how to break down the needs and vulnerabilities of prospective customers. Their quick assessment of customers can help them tap into scripted questions to lead the process.
“Car salespeople are very specifically trained in how to persuade people,” Bartlett says. “You’ll want to understand not only what you want, but your weak spots.”
One question you might hear is “How much are you looking to spend per month?” Bartlett says that it’s important to keep that information in your pocket. “If you announce that upfront, it may skew the process. It leaves you vulnerable.”
It’s fine to have car salespeople help answer some questions, but remember that they may use information against you, including vanity, family needs or safety priorities, in order to upsell you on a more expensive car or options package.
Your strategy: Break down the purchase process into stages and focus on only one at a time:
- Choose the car you want.
- Equip it with what you want.
- Negotiate a price.
“Stay on your mission,” Bartlett says, and repeat this mantra: “Let’s focus on this. We’ll get to that later.”
3. The pressure of the ‘impending event’
You know what you want and have hammered out a price. Then, the salesperson says that if you don’t buy the car today, you’ll miss the big sale or someone else will come look at the car. That’s a sales tactic known as “the impending event.”
“People get more interested in having something that they know someone else wants or already has. Car salespeople often take advantage of that,” says Burdge.
“Suppose you’re at the car dealership looking around and you pick out a particular vehicle and the salesman breaks the bad news to you, saying someone else already has a deposit on that car or there’s a buyer who said they’d be back later today to pick it up,” he continues. “That’s usually followed by the invitation to put a down payment on it or buy it right now before they come back. The impending event may be true, but more often than not the story is just a sales gimmick to get you to spring for the purchase right then and there.”
Your strategy: Look the salesperson in the eye and say, “Are you telling me that if I come back tomorrow, you can’t sell me the car? Really? I bet another dealership would have it.” In other words, your best defense is to simply walk away, or be prepared to do so.
“A car dealer who will do that to you is likely to do a whole lot more every chance they get,” says Burdge. Remember, you can find that identical car elsewhere, whether at another dealership or on the internet. You can also simply buy something else.
4. The ‘porcupine close’
With this strategy, the seller “sticks” the potential buyer with a question. It could be, “If I could get you this monthly payment, would that be what it takes to get you to buy this car today?” Or, “If I can get this in midnight blue, would you be willing to buy this today?”
This strategy, known as the “If,” signals that the dealer is looking for your buying trigger, says LeeAnn Shattuck, creator of The Car Chick website and Car Chick TV.
Your strategy: Your answer is always to this question should always be no, says Shattuck. Instead, tell the salesperson that you are shopping around with several dealers to find the best overall deal. Once you compare your offers, you plan to make a buying decision.
5. The ‘Ben Franklin close’
This one is a classic. Here’s how it works: The salesman draws a line down the middle of a piece of paper, listing reasons to buy the car on one side and reasons not to buy on the other side. This is a very common sales gimmick in the auto industry and elsewhere.
“The idea is that you will see that, on balance, you would be better off buying a new car. Of course, that actually depends on what they write down and how truthful it is in the first place,” says Burdge.
Your strategy: The best way to defuse this tactic is to name it. Say, “That’s the Ben Franklin close.” Doing so will likely create an awkward moment with the salesperson, but it will also prevent the tactic from continuing.
You also want to maintain your focus on the numbers you care about during this tactic — including your monthly payment, your down payment, the length of your loan and your interest rate. “Know what those numbers should be, according to your budget, before you go into the dealership, and make sure you stick to those numbers,” says Burdge.
6. The ‘alternative choice close’
This tactic is one of the most popular, says Dan Seidman, CEO of consulting and sales-training firm Got Influence? and author of “The Ultimate Guide to Sales Training.” You’re offered a choice of two things, such as: “Would you prefer that model in blue or red?”
Good car salespeople never ask yes or no questions, because they don’t want to give consumers a chance to say “no.” The salesman’s secret: Both choices are available. “In the car business, you sell what’s on the lot,” Seidman says. “A smart consumer might say, ‘I want to look at everything you have.’”
Your strategy: Take a lesson from the political arena and don’t answer the question you’re asked. Deflect the question by responding with something on a different topic.
If a salesperson tries to box you in with the alternate choice close, don’t take the bait. “You’re relaxed, you’re leisurely, you’re not ready to make a decision,” Seidman says.
7. The trip to the back office
The finance manager is one of the most skilled people at the dealership, says Bartlett, advising you to pile on a bundle of extras that you don’t need. Because you’re spending a lot of money on the car, you may be encouraged to buy interior stain protection, anti-theft devices, rustproofing and an extended warranty.
Your strategy: Know what you want and need before going to the dealership, and stick to your mission.
“If you’ve been strategic throughout the car buying process, don’t blow it with this final stage,” says Bartlett. You’ll want to be clear about what you want — presumably not tacked-on, profit-driving extras — and finalize that package.
What to prepare for when buying a car
Before you embark on car shopping, it’s important to review what your wants and needs are, research the vehicles you’re interested in and nail down your budget.
“The more you decide before you go shopping, the less likely it is that someone will talk you into something that won’t work for you or that you can’t afford,” says Burdge. “Make your choices at home and stick to them once you leave for the car lot.” Determine how much you can afford in a car payment and still have enough money to cover your monthly living expenses and emergency expenses, staying conservative with your numbers.
You’ll also want to think about what type of vehicle you need and what types of vehicles you’ll consider, such as four-door sedans, two-door coupes, sports cars, convertibles or pickup trucks. You may want to consider whether you’re interested in electric vehicles, hybrids or traditional gasoline-operated cars. All of these decisions will limit your buying choices.
Finally, before heading out the door, do your research online. This could include figuring out what your trade-in is worth, if you have one. It’s also a good idea to check ratings, reviews and prices for the vehicles you’re interested in buying. And while you’re at it, research the reputation of dealers you plan to visit to purchase the car.