If you've ever bought a new car, you know that there are two ways you can go about it. You can be smart, or you can be dumb. Or, maybe, a third way, which is somewhere between smart and dumb.
The dumb way is to walk into the car agency, find the car that looks prettiest to you, look at the sticker price and tell the salesman: "Oh, I love it, I'll take it."
There are people who do that. And in their own way, they are lovable people. The car salesmen love to see them coming.
Then there is the smart way to do it. An example would be my brother-in-law Gus, who is one of the shrewdest shoppers I've ever known.
Before he buys a car, or just about anything else, he reads Consumer Reports and other such publications. Then he takes his time. He goes to a dealer, rubs his chin, laughs derisively, haggles and, if he doesn't get what he considers a good price, he walks out and goes somewhere else. He keeps going until he gets what he considers a fair deal.
He's immune to all sales tricks and charm. And he's pitiless. If a salesman collapsed to the floor, bled from the eyes, went into spasms and gasped: "If I don't make this sale, I shall die," Gus would step over him and say: "I hope your will is up to date. Goodbye."
Of course, Gus has many years of experience. A younger buyer might not be as cagey and tough. But that doesn't mean they have to be dumb.
For example, a young female reporter I know recently bought her first car a new, compact Yuppiemobile. But before going out looking, she read consumer magazines to get an idea what she wanted. Then she bought a paperback book that explained the economics of car sales. Only then did she go shopping. And she wasn't shy about haggling and walking out until she was satisfied that she had a fair price.
I mention this because I was struck by a recent study on car pricing. The American Bar Foundation sent some test shoppers to new-car dealers in the Chicago area to see what kind of deals they could get. The shoppers included white men and women and black men and women.
They found that white men get the best prices; white women are asked to pay about $150 more than white men, black men about $400 more and black women more than $900 more.
I suppose these figures were supposed to shock us and provide further evidence that being a white guy is terrific, even if we run slow.
But just before I fell into a deep valley of white male guilt, I asked myself a couple of questions:
1. These were test shoppers, not genuine buyers, so can we know what they would have actually paid if they got down and dirty and really haggled?
2. Even if the results of the study are correct, so what?
I hope that doesn't sound heartless, but I have trouble believing that there is some vast conspiracy by Chicago new-car dealers to give white males a better price than white females, black males and black females.
Car salesmen want to earn a buck. They don't care if you are tall, short, fat, skinny, Polish, Italian, Latvian, Korean, male, female, white or black.
If you are a white male and you let them believe that you will happily pay the sticker price, they will happily let you happily pay the sticker price. When it comes to profit, a salesman is without bias: A sucker is a sucker.
On the other hand, if you are a black female and let them know that you are fully aware that the sticker price doesn't mean a damn thing and are knowledgeable about pricing, extras and all the other tricks, you will soon see the price shrink. And if it doesn't shrink enough, you can walk out and try somewhere else until it does.
So if the dubious results of this study tell me anything, it is this:
1. White males have more experience in new-car shopping than white females, black males and black females.
2. White males and white females are better educated than black males and black females, so they're more likely to do the research that helps them get a fair price.
And there are probably other factors. Out in the sprawling, mostly white suburbs, there are far more car dealerships than in the black city neighborhoods. Black shoppers might limit themselves on how far they'll travel to find the best deal. So their local dealers might be accustomed to plucking them.
If this problem exists and I mean if then what is the solution?
One solution was offered by the group that made the study, and it's a real jaw-dropper and eye-popper.
They suggest that civil rights laws be broadened to somehow make it a crime for a salesman to persuade a minority member or a female to pay more for a car than, for example, my brother-in-law Gus would pay.
Ah, yes, I can see it now a new federal agency with acres of bureaucrats at their desks, listening to people say: "My civil rights were violated; I just found out that I paid $50 more than my neighbor for a sun roof. And he got better wheel covers than I did and tinted glass."
The study group offered another suggestion: The government should outlaw bargaining in car sales.
Fine. Then should the government also tell me what I can sell my house for? Should I be arrested if I goose the asking price and some stiff doesn't lowball me with his counter-offer? And when we haggle, as is always done, should we both go to jail?
I have my own proposal. The people who ran these tests and made these proposals should themselves be tested. They should be tapped on their heads to see if they make a sound like a bongo drum.
Mike Royko's column appears Monday and Friday in The Evening Sun.