Holding car spiel to the fax Stress-saver: Negotiating car prices by fax worked so well for Michael Bryant that he has written a guide on how to do it.

Consumer strategies

December 29, 1997|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Michael Bryant admits that he's no good at negotiating with car dealers.

"I hate going to car dealerships," the 47-year-old Baltimore man said. "I'm a big chicken when it comes to dealing with them. I go in there and completely fall apart and blow it."

So when he had to buy a new minivan in May 1996, he tried to find a way to buy a car without setting foot in a showroom. His solution -- doing all the negotiating by fax machine -- worked so well that he did it again when he had to buy another car in October 1996.

Bryant estimates that he saved $4,000 on each purchase and, emboldened by his experience, he wrote "Car-Buy-Fax," a booklet being published this month by Fey Marketing that explains what he did and how other people can do the same.

Buying cars over the Internet is becoming more common. With services such as Auto-By-Tel, consumers fill out a form on the Internet specifying the car and options they want. The form is forwarded to the nearest dealership, which makes an offer. But Bryant said his fax method allows for more competition and is for people who are not so computer-savvy.

What Bryant did is rare, car dealers said, although some reported getting an increasing number of quote requests by fax. Going to a dealership is an important part of buying a car because of the opportunity to see all the colors and options available and to simply test drive the car, dealers say. And it's possible consumers will find a car they like better than what they had in mind.

"A car is a lot more expensive than a pair of shoes, and you wouldn't buy shoes without trying them on," said Renny Stinebert, sales manager at Anderson Honda in Baltimore.

But going to the dealership is also full of pitfalls for the consumer, said Irving J. Rein, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University who has worked at and written about car dealerships.

"The communication process is detrimental when you're in the car sales room," Rein said. "The more you talk, the less chance you have of getting what you want."

When you're in the dealership, salespeople can put to use their time-tested techniques of persuasion, he said.

When consumers stay out of the showroom, they cut down the possibility of the "switch element" -- when a dealer persuades someone to buy a car they didn't intend to buy and haven't priced. Also, people are reluctant to leave a showroom empty-handed because of the time they've invested and the inconvenience of having to go to another dealership.

When Rein bought a car for his daughter two years ago, he did it by fax. He saved some money and a lot of headache, and when he buys his next car, he said, he'll again use the fax machine.

Predictably, car dealers aren't going to be too happy if buying cars by fax becomes more common, Rein said. They spend a lot of money on the showroom, and when they negotiate by fax, they can't take advantage of that environment.

But, he said, dealers will do what they have to do to sell a car, and they wouldn't make the sale if they weren't making a profit.

Bryant also discovered that dealers will do what's necessary to make a sale.

For the first car he bought by fax, he knew he wanted a Ford Windstar minivan. So he faxed a letter describing exactly what he was looking for and what his terms were to 37 Ford dealers in the Baltimore-Washington area. Seventeen faxed him back with offers ranging from $21,000 to more than $25,000.

Then Bryant took the lowest offer and asked the others to beat it. When he got four dealerships down to about $20,800, he went to the one closest to his home -- Hill and Sanders Ford in Lanham -- took care of some paperwork and drove his new car off the lot. As he expected, the saleswoman tried to talk him into expensive additions, but he held his ground and got his price.

After he had a similar experience buying a Nissan Sentra, Bryant, who runs a management consulting business, decided to try to capitalize on his idea. His recently completed 27-page booklet will be marketed by direct mail to people who are looking to buy a car. The booklet includes step-by-step instructions on how to buy a car by fax and sample letters to send to dealerships. It costs $19.95, plus $5.50 postage and handling.

Dealers said there are some instances in which they won't negotiate by fax. Shawn McLaughlin, sales manager at Al Packer Ford in Baltimore, said that for vehicles that are in high demand, such as Ford Expeditions and F-Series trucks, he won't get in a bidding war with other dealers.

Apple Ford in Columbia gets as many as two to three fax requests every week, said sales manager Terry Robinson. He said he's more likely to respond to faxes from people in the area. If he sees that the fax is going to 10 dealerships, he said, he'd probably disregard it.

But as other dealers said, and Bryant pointed out, a sales prospect is a sales prospect, and they're not likely to ignore it.

Pub Date: 12/29/97

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