onTheRoad - Fear of Buying



Illustrations by Chance Browne

Should women feel intimidated in a car showroom? Of course not! (But, still ...)

When Kim Fiore went to finalize the deal on her new car, she decided to bring in the big guns: her husband.

“I just felt that I’d have a stronger position with him there,” she explained over a glass of wine at Tavern on Main recently. “Not that I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I’d done my homework; I knew what I wanted, but he was reinforcement. I felt better with him there.” 

It probably didn’t hurt that her husband is Westport’s Chief of Police.

Are women venturing into dangerous, uncharted seas when they walk into a car dealership? 

“I think so, yes,” says Nancy Wokanovicz. She’s a tall, attractive woman with long blond hair and blue eyes.  “I still remember trying to buy a car without my husband.” It was years ago, but she has no trouble remembering every detail. “I wanted a red Camaro, and he was supposed to go with me, but he had the flu so I went by myself. I had to trade in a car that belonged to both of us, so I needed his signature. That was what saved me.” Nancy is multitasking, talking about the car sale and shuffling paperwork at the Silver Ribbon in Westport, where she works. “The salesman had talked me into a car that was a couple of models old and it had these ugly red wheels and I was paying full price. My husband was furious when he got there. I just know the salesman was taking advantage of me because I was a woman.”

Nancy’s coworker joins the conversation.  “I was lucky.  I got a woman salesperson.” Susan Hamilton is older with punky short grey hair, rimless eyeglasses and jewelry that makes a statement.  “I just walked into Saab of Westport with my wallet out. I wanted a convertible, and I’d recently had a windfall, so I had cash. I was a perfect target for someone to take advantage of.  Before I got to Jennifer, salesmen asked me if I wanted to talk about the motor, and I said, ‘Not particularly. I want to know about the colors.’ They asked me if I wanted a standard or automatic, and I said I just wanted to be sure I had ‘Prindle …’ — Park, Drive, Neutral, Drive and Low.  Thank God I stumbled onto Jennifer.”

Susan feels that male salesmen reacted differently to her than they would to men.  For example, when she was shopping for her previous car, a Subaru, she pointed out that she could get the same car for less money at another dealership.  The salesman was combative: He accused her of “playing games.” Susan adds, “A man would have been considered a shrewd shopper.”

Susan’s observation is echoed by many women who feel out of their element on the showroom floor. Even women who can successfully negotiate the sale of their own home often feel guarded in a car showroom. And should a salesman turn out to be boorish or a blockhead, some women are just not able to wave it off.

“I was at a dealership on a snowy day,” says Diane, a Darien mother of two and manager at a media company, “and the sales guy didn’t want to go out in the snow. He said, ‘Go out and look at it and if you have questions, come back.’ He might have been, this way to every customer, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have done the same thing to my husband.”

Salesmen say it isn’t so. “We treat everyone the same,” says Tom Bacik, manager of the Westport Honda dealership. “We absolutely don’t differentiate between men and women customers. Absolutely not.”

Leo Karl, president of Karl Chevrolet in New Canaan, a family-owned dealership that’s been around since 1927, says that besides the fact that it’s unethical and just plain rude, dealerships can’t afford to treat women customers carelessly. “There are too many dealerships in lower Fairfield County; the competition is too keen,” he says, adding, “Besides, sixty-five percent of my business is women.”

Indeed, most dealerships are eager to add more women to the sales staff. According to a CNW Marketing Research study, evidence suggests that women are a strong influence on eighty-one percent of all new car purchases. But nationally women comprise only ten percent of automobile sales people.

In Greenwich, the sales manager of the gleaming, high-end Miller Motorcars showroom is a woman. “I don’t believe that women and men are treated any differently on the sales floor,” says Cynthia Koppelman. “It all depends on the person.  If a woman enters a dealership with a positive attitude and half a brain, I don’t think the wool could be pulled over her eyes.”

Then why does research tell us that women pay more for their cars than men do, that seventy-five percent  of women bring along a man to ensure they are treated fairly? Why do so many women confess that they feel intimidated by the whole process? Why are there literally dozens of sites on the Internet devoted to helping women car-buyers?

Karl addresses that. “This is pretty much a male-dominated business. But, unfortunately, some stereotypes still exist, and women may come to the sale with those misconceptions, anticipating being patronized or, worse yet, cheated.”

Ray Kearns of Westport Volvo says that selling to a woman can be a potential minefield of the politically incorrect. “For example, you need to know how the person is going to use the car. Is it going to be driven by one driver on sunny Sunday afternoons or full of dirty kids with hockey gear every day?  But if you ask a woman if she’s married or has kids, she’s liable to respond with, ‘What business is that of yours?’ She may think what you’re really asking her is, ‘Am I wasting my time if your husband’s not here?’ She might even think the salesman’s coming on to her, when the salesman is just doing his job.” Kearns then laughs: “The president of Volvo is a woman!”

Karl says that if you feel even a little bit uncomfortable with the way you are being treated, walk out the door. “Don’t do business in a place where you feel you have to haggle or compromise.”

Above all, allow that the salesperson might actually be trying to help you buy the right car.  “Sometimes people walk in thinking they know all the answers,” says Karl, “and, frequently, the car they have in mind isn’t the car that’s best for them. The salesperson’s job is to listen and advise. It’s got nothing to do with male or female — except …” He hesitates. “Customers might prefer a woman sales consultant.” Then he smiles: “Women are better listeners.”