The New-Car Mating Dance

Our minivan is ten years old, so we went out to buy a new one this weekend.

In Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we write a lot about how the Internet has changed markets in which there are information asymmetries.? Buying a new car gave me the chance to see first-hand these forces at work in the new car market.

I was not disappointed.? We already knew what kind of minivan we wanted.? Within 15 minutes and at no cost, using sites like TrueCar and Edmunds, we not only had a good idea of a fair price to pay for the car, but also were able to notify some local car dealerships that we were interested in quotes.? Just a few minutes later, one car dealership offered to sell us the car at $1,300 under invoice.? That seemed like a good place to start, but before we could even round the kids up to drag them to the dealership, another dealership called, and when they heard the offer from the first dealership, they beat that offer by a few hundred dollars.? I called the first dealership back and got voice mail, so we headed off to the second one.? I figured we were still far away from a final price, but we were off to a good start without even leaving our house.

I learned a lot about buying cars the last time we bought one – the various lies that dealerships tell with respect to invoice prices, the ridiculous game of cat and mouse with the salesperson trotting off to talk to the manager, etc.? I abhorred the process the last time we needed a car, but this time, thinking about it more intellectually, I was eager to take part in the elaborate ritual associated with buying a new car.

(Perhaps my willingness to haggle stemmed from my unlikely triumph the last time around.? I had gotten an estimate faxed to me — this was pre-internet — of what a fair price was to pay for the car.? Stupidly, I left the sheet of paper with the estimate at home, but I thought I remembered what it was.? I fought hard for that price: threatening repeatedly to leave, back and forth and back and forth, and finally I got the dealer within a few hundred dollars of the price I remembered.? When I got home, I realized that I had transposed two digits, and the true fair price was two thousand dollars higher than the one I had managed to bargain.? Had I known the true number, I would have gladly accepted it…leaving that fax at home was worth thousands of dollars.)

So we got to the car dealership and we sat down to bargain.? He explained to me that the price they were offering was well below invoice, discreetly showing me some pricing documents stamped “confidential,” emphasizing how much money they were going to lose on the car.? I replied that he knew as well as I did that the invoice price he was quoting me was not what the dealership paid for the car.? I asked him to simply give me his best offer.? He disappeared for a while, ostensibly to talk to his boss, but probably to catch up on who was winning the baseball game.

He was gone just long enough for a third dealership to email me a price quote.? This one was $1,500 lower than the current best offer from the dealership where I was sitting.? He came back and said the best he could do would be to go $200 lower.? I said, “That’s not going to work because another dealer just offered to beat that price by over $1,000.”? I handed over my phone to show him the email.? He disparaged the other dealership for a while, and then he went and found the boss.? The boss assured me that their last offer was the very best they could do – it was a generous offer for a dozen different reasons.

I said, “That’s all fine, but if you don’t do better, I’m going to walk out of here and go to the other dealership.”

By my estimation, we were now about halfway through the mating ritual.? In about 15 minutes, after a lot of huffing and puffing, we would get the car for the price the third dealership had offered.? That would still probably be paying way too much, but I was willing to accept that outcome.

“So I’m going to walk out,” I reiterated.

“Okay,” the manager said.? “If it doesn’t work out at that other dealership, come back and we will sell you the car at the price we offered before.”

I stood up and began to gather the kids, all part of the tough bargaining act.? They simply watched me, as if they had forgotten that this was all part of the ritual.? Even if they had forgotten their lines, I still remembered mine.? “We both know that if I walk out of here today, I am never coming back.”

To which the guy simply said, “We’re willing to take our chances on that.”

And we walked out.

I was shocked.? This dealership had sent me a price over the internet, come down only $200, and then smiled as we left to buy a car from another place.? I figured we must be getting a good offer from that third dealership if these guys weren’t interested in matching it.? I called the third dealership on the phone, but?I was so disappointed that the first dealership abandoned our mating ritual that I didn’t have the energy to start a new dance.

I accepted their offer without bargaining.? We pick the car up on Tuesday.

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  1. Steve K says:

    Old joke:

    How do you ruin a bargainer’s week?

    Go in on a Monday morning and accept his first offer.

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  2. Justin James says:

    I am truly shocked that it took you this long to read “Influence: Science and Practice”. It is a seminal work in the field of sales and marketing.


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  3. gpo says:

    The last three cars I have bought all the haggling was done over email. I had the deal in place and only needed to show up and sign the paperwork. It makes everything so pleasant. I become a real jerk in haggling.

    Actually back in 2002 we weren’t sure if we were going to get a Ford or Honda, so I had deals on both cars. We went and test drove the cars actually at dealerships that we did not have the deal with and decided on the Honda and then drove to the other dealership and got the car.

    You don’t need to be physically there to haggle, so why waste precious time, especially trying to wrangle kids.

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  4. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    Why do 99% of the things we buy have a SET PRICE? And things like cars have a variable price that rewards the few with negotiating experience and punishes EVERYONE ELSE.

    The car should have universal, fixed stable price, just like buying milk. Car dealers are notorius for marking up product just because.
    They will mark it up $600. and then have a labor sale with a $500 automatic discount.

    Eliminate dealers. The Internet should make these Plaid Sports-Coated Shysters extinct. They do nothing except take a middleman cut. And their juevenile psychological games are so old school.

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  5. tij says:

    It makes sense to me that the first dealership watched you leave. They decided to let you go and wait for the next customer, who will almost certainly pay more. You plumbed the depths of that dealership’s willingness to haggle and reached the low threshold they had decided (right then or beforehand) of price that they would sell for. I hear you on how tiring it gets to go through this dance. It’s a game of nerves and endurance. Sounds like you did well this time.

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  6. Brett says:

    Dumped by a car dealership…


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  7. Patrick McCann says:

    Did you beat the price here?

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  8. Witty Nickname says:

    I had a similar experience with buying my latest car. The internet has made it so competitive that the price online is about as low as they would go.

    I went to three different dealers and they would not budge more that $300 from the internet price – one would not move at all. I walked out of all three and bought a new car (I bought an ’09 Pontiac on closeout after they had ditched the brand – got a great deal.)

    In reality if the era of haggling of a used car is over I will not cry. I hated that wheeling and dealing anyway.

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