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Tactics car salespeople hope you don’t know

Car salesman showing a car to couple
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The process of buying a vehicle has a lot of moving parts. You have to haggle with salespeople over price and negotiate with lenders for an auto loan — all while trying 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.  

Top 7 salesperson tactics to watch out for 

You will almost inevitably face high-pressure sales pitches when you go to a dealership. Here are seven 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 exhausted.  

The salesperson is going to be there all day regardless of you. So, if you plan on haggling, don’t be afraid to set aside an entire day to spend at the dealership — and bring something to occupy your time while you wait out the salesperson. 

But you don’t have to go through the entire process in a single day. It is fine to take multiple days to make a decision. 

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 in how to break down the needs and vulnerabilities of prospective customers. Their quick assessment of customers allows them to tap into scripted questions and 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.” Insist on talking numbers later after your test drive and are in the process of signing paperwork. 

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, 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. 
  • Discuss add-ons and trade-in values separately. 

“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 to 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 Ronald Burdge, a lemon law attorney.  

“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 at least 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 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 salesperson 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, your interest rate and the overall cost of your loan. “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, managing director at Read Emotions and author of “The Ultimate Guide to Sales Training.” You’re offered a choice between two things, like whether you would prefer a model in blue or red. 

Good car salespeople never ask yes or no questions because they don’t want to give you a chance to say no. The 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 a noncommittal answer — like you’re interested in a variety of colors — before switching to a different topic.  

If a salesperson tries to box you in with the alternative 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. They will recommend that you 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. You should ideally already have financing lined up, so consistently remind the finance manager that you have a set budget and aren’t flexible. 

“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 affects a car salesperson’s tactics?

Salespeople are usually under pressure to maximize the profits on each vehicle they sell to increase their commission, and this influences how they interact with you. 

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 Burdge.  

In addition, dealership management offers bonuses for selling cars that may have been sitting on the lot. 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.  

“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.”  

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 type of vehicle you need should be the first factor you consider. Sedans, SUVs, trucks and minivans all have different price points and functionality. 
  • Once you know the type of vehicle, research makes and models. Certain manufacturers have better reputations and warranties. Trims and standard features should also be considered when you are shopping. 
  • Decide if you want to go new or used. A new car may have the most recent advancements in safety, comfort and function — but it comes at a higher price point and will be worth significantly less in a year. 
  • Secure outside financing before visiting the dealership. Banks and online lenders offer competitive rates on auto loans, so it makes sense to get an idea of your potential monthly payment before the salesperson starts wheeling out common tactics. 

“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.”  

The bottom line 

Understanding the most common tactics will help you stay confident during negotiation. But it’s not the only tool you have. Research multiple vehicles, know the value of your trade-in and get financing before you go to the dealership.  

You don’t need to be a pro — you just need to be firm on how much you’re willing to spend and what you really need. 

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Written by
Dana Dratch
Personal Finance Writer
Dana Dratch is a personal finance and lifestyle writer who enjoys talking all things money and credit. With a degree in English and writing, she likes asking the questions everyone would ask if they could and sharing the answers — along with smart money management tips from the experts.
Edited by
Auto loans editor