Earl Stewart is the owner and general manager of Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach. The dealership is located at 1215 N. Federal Highway in Lake Park. Contact him at www.earlstewarttoyota.com, call (561) 358-1474, fax (561) 658-0746 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to him on Seaview AM 960, FM 95.9 and FM 106.9, which can be streamed at www.SeaviewRadio.com every Saturday morning between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.
It's hard to believe that we're approaching the end of 2012. The older I get, the faster the time flies. This might be wishful thinking, but here's another list of recommended ways that dealers should change for the better in the coming year.
I know a lot of car dealers read my blog, my column and listen to my radio show. You dealers should understand and take responsibility for the fact that we rank ethically last among all professions, tied with politicians, lobbyists and lawyers.
1. Eliminate your dealer fee. We had shown some progress in dealers eliminating their dealer fees in Palm Beach County. Palm Beach Toyota and Royal Palm Toyota dropped their dealer fee three years ago and Treasure Coast Toyota eliminated theirs two years ago. This was due, not to a "moral revelation" by the dealer or legislative action, but economic pressure. Palm Beach Toyota, Royal Palm Toyota and Treasure Coast Toyota are my three nearest competitors. But unfortunately, all three of these dealers recently reinstated their dealer fee. In fact, Royal Palm and Palm Beach increased their dealer fee to $999.
The only additional costs passed to your customer should be federal, state or local taxes and/or fees such as Florida sales tax. This is the generally accepted practice in retailing all other products and services. A price is quoted to your customer when you communicate a price in any fashion, including newspaper, radio or TV, painting a price on a windshield or sign, saying a price over the phone or in person or giving a price over the Internet. Your "dealer fee" is profit for you. It is not a "fee" and it should be included in your price.
2. The buck stops with you. You are responsible for the actions of your employees. Your salesmen, service technicians and service advisors are virtually all paid on commission. If you do not police your people and hire ethical people your customers will be taken advantage of.
If you are an absentee owner, as most owners of car dealerships are in South Florida are, you have to have someone running your store who knows and cares about what is happening to your customers. Your ignorance of the mistreatment of your customers is no more an excuse than being ignorant of a law when you break it.
You may think you know how your employees are treating your customers, but I promise you that you don't unless you communicate directly with some of them. You cannot rely exclusively on reports from your managers to tell you the truth.
3. Don't advertise a car at a price that you don't want to sell it for. If you advertise a car for a specific price, you should be willing and able to sell that car to as many customers as respond to the ad. If you run out of stock, give the customer a rain check.
Also, pay your salesmen a commission on the ad cars. Now most of you don't pay a salesman a commission if he sells the ad car. What do you think that salesman is going to tell the customer who comes in on the ad? If you run out of that model, you should give your customers a rain check. When you don't do that, it's called "bait and switch".
4. Don't insist or encourage your customers to buy and take delivery of their cars on the same day. This is called a "spot delivery" in the trade. There are lots of things bad about this. A car is the second largest purchase a person makes. The customer should be allowed time to reflect and think about this decision.
Cars are often spot delivered when the credit has not been approved, especially nights and weekends when the banks are closed. Customers often have to be called back to sign another contract at higher payments, higher interest and/or higher down payments. This is sometimes done deliberately because customers are often too embarrassed to tell their friends that they really haven't bought that shiny new car they were showing off. Attorneys in other states have filed class action suits against car dealers and attorneys in this state are working on doing the same.
5. Give customers who are" just looking" a price when they ask for it. It's insulting to today's sophisticated buyers to be told when they ask for the price that they can buy the car for, that they have to make an offer in writing with a deposit first. It's also insulting when you tell the customer that you won't give her a price until she's "ready to buy." Can you imagine being told this by a salesman at Best Buy when you asked the price of 50-inch plasma TV?
Your salesmen won't give prices to your customers because they are afraid customers will compare prices with the competition. This is what the free marketplace is all about! Customers should shop and compare. If you treat your customers with respect, integrity and courtesy, they will return to you an offer you the right to meet or beat a lower price.
6. Don't advertise discounts from "dealer list" price. When you mark up the manufacturer's list price by thousands and then advertise a discount, you are misleading your customers.
The federal government has a law that every new car displays a "Monroney label" (named after the U.S. senator who sponsored this bill) on the window when it is sold. The reason for this law is to give car buyers a fair, even basis for comparing prices between different dealers. By confusing your customers between "dealer's list" and "manufacturer's list" you are circumventing the law.
7. Don't advertise lease payments that require large down payments hidden in the fine print. Most people lease cars to minimize their monthly payment. When your customer comes in on the ad finds out she has to pay $4,000 cash down to get the lease payment you advertised, it's just plain wrong. There are some dealers who actually advertise prices with a qualification that the customer pays an additional sum first to get the advertised price.
8. Do not advertise that you can get anybody financed no matter how bad their credit. This is not true and just plain cruel, especially during these terrible economic times with very tight credit.
9. Don't guarantee the lowest price with qualifications that cannot be met. Your qualifications are usually that you "reserve the right to buy the other car from the other dealer who beat your price" and that the customer must have a signed buyer's order from the other dealership.
You know that the other dealer will never agree to sell you that car and you also know the chances of the customer getting out of the dealership with a signed buyer's order without taking delivery are slim and none.
Dealers reading this, I dare you to show me evidence that you have honored your guarantee with just one customer. I'll make you a bet that you have never honored that guarantee.
10. Don't offer a minimum $10,000 (or some other high number) for every trade-in. Sometimes these ads, say "If you can push, pull, or drag your old car in we will give you at least $10,000 toward the purchase of a new car." You then mark up the new car so high, you are not really offering the customer anything more than the wholesale value, if that.