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Belittlement Plagues Women Car Buyers : High-Pressure Tactics, Raw Deals Raise Hackles Against Old Boys’ Club

Washington Post

Rosa Mintz of Silver Spring, Md., signed a $7,678 sales contract for a $4,000 Yugo. She said she fell victim to high-pressure salesmanship that, among other things, induced her to buy an extended warranty for $1,105--enough to get a top-notch service agreement on a $27,000 Cadillac.

Barbara Morgenstern of McLean, Va., said she was insulted by a salesman after she refused to answer his questions about her ability to pay for a new Mazda 929. A woman of means, she could have paid cash for anything on the lot.

Monique Lyons of Washington visited two dealers who did not take her Honda Civic quest seriously. She finally bought the car she wanted from a responsive salesman at dealership No. 3.

Lyons was lucky.

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Women car shoppers are the most likely candidates for a raw deal, according to many auto industry executives, analysts, car dealers and others familiar with the treatment of women in auto dealerships.

Although women bought nearly half of the 10.3 million cars sold in this country last year and influenced 80% of all new-car sales, the dealerships that sold them those cars are largely dominated by men.

As a result of that dominance--and what some consider old-fashioned views of female car-shoppers--women tend to be targeted more often than men as easy marks for a quick or profitable sale, according to those in the industry.

Last Bastian of Chauvinism

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“The auto dealership is one of the last bastions of overt male chauvinism in the United States,” said Aiko Woods, a Washington woman who spent about 2 years selling cars at various dealerships in the area.

Ron B. Tonkin, president of the McLean-based National Automobile Dealers Assn. (NADA), which represents 20,000 of the nation’s car dealerships, admitted that there is an old boys’ culture in the car business. But he said that is changing, largely because dealers who want to stay in business have no choice.

“In our industry today, you don’t have to be hit over the head to see the handwriting on the wall. Women are becoming major buyers,” he said.

“The days of ‘Hi, honey,’ and ‘What color are you looking for?’ are over,” Tonkin said. “Women coming to buy cars today don’t want to be talked down to. They want real answers to real questions about costs, engine displacement, mileage--answers to the same kinds of questions men ask. We have to continue to educate our salesmen on how to treat women customers.”

Salesmen? It was not a Freudian slip.

Despite their growing presence as buyers, women remain a minority in the executive and sales ranks of the nation’s dealerships.

Fewer than than 3% of the nation’s dealerships are owned by women; most of them inherited their businesses from husbands or fathers, according to NADA and other industry reports.

Figures Hard to Pin Down

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Exact figures for those selling new and used cars are difficult to ascertain, because people frequently move in and out of the industry, or move from dealership to dealership.

But NADA estimated that in 1987, 189,655 people were selling cars in the United States. Of those, according to other industry sources, about 2.5% were women.

The dealerships’ “mostly white-male culture” is bound to have some negative effects on women car shoppers, said Sheila Sheinberg, president of the Houston-based Center for Life Cycle Sciences, a management consulting firm for automotive and other businesses.

That culture carries with it social behaviors, biases and language that are offensive to women, Sheinberg said.

Many dealers disagreed, including the one who sold Mintz her Yugo with the $7,678 sales contract.

“I’ve sold more cars to women than anyone,” said John Darvish of his Lanham, Md., dealership. “At least 44% of my business is with women. We don’t mistreat women.”

Accepted Extended Warranty

Mintz voluntarily accepted the extended warranty and an $895 dealership package (which included such extras as undercoating and rust-proofing) that helped to boost the price of her car, Darvish said.

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“She knew exactly what she was doing right from the beginning,” he said.

Not so, said Mintz, who insisted that she was attracted to the Yugo only because of ads describing it as the most affordable car in America.

“I told them that it was my first time buying a new car,” she said. “They encouraged me to buy these things and told me that everything was all right. I feel exploited.”

By her own description, Mintz was what many U.S. auto dealers a “lay-down” customer, one who readily pays the sticker price and has few objections to dealer add-ons.

“Lay-downs” are always welcome in car dealerships. “Be-backs” and “bitches,” two other terms used prominently in the industry, are not.

“Be-backs” are car shoppers who have no intention of buying at the moment. Dealership employees under pressure to meet sales goals frequently regard “be-backs” as time-wasters.

“Bitches” are women who come well armed for price negotiations. They already know the manufacturer’s suggested retail price and usually know what is realistic in terms of dealer and options costs.

They ask specific questions and get upset when specific answers are not forthcoming. They make the seller invest an enormous amount of time--and then walk away, leaving the dealer empty-handed.

Although men can also be cast in these three categories, many car sellers said the terms bitches and lay-downs are most often used to describe female buyers.

“Statistically, you can’t prove that women are treated worse than men” in sales of new cars, said Judy Golden, spokeswoman for Family Circle magazine, which has spent considerable time and money researching complaints about car dealers by its mostly female readership.

But recent surveys of new-car buyers, conducted by J.D. Power & Associates on behalf of the magazine, indicated that most women “perceive that their treatment (by dealerships) is negative and remains shabby,” Golden said.

That perception, accurate or not, can cost dealers money. Ask Morgenstern about her Mazda experience.

Shopping for $22,000 Car

She was shopping for a car late last year and became interested in a Mazda 929 sedan, priced at about $22,000. In her search she made two visits to Rosenthal Mazda at Tysons Corner, Va.

On her first visit, “I was left standing alone for 15 minutes before any salesperson approached me,” said Morgenstern, a self-employed career counselor who is married to a defense consultant.

When a salesman showed up, “He immediately began trying to qualify me,” she said.

Qualifying in the auto-retail business means trying to determine whether the customer is suited to a vehicle--and how much vehicle the customer can afford.

Morgenstern said she wanted to test-drive the Mazda before making a final decision or discussing finances. She was told to come back the next day for a test drive.

She returned to the Rosenthal dealership, as requested. “But another salesman tried to qualify me all over again,” she said. She objected, ended the discussion and left.

“As I was getting ready to drive off the lot, the (second) salesman ran up to my car and gave me the (obscene gesture). I felt degraded,” she said.

Obscene Gesture Denied

Spokesmen for Rosenthal Mazda confirmed that Morgenstern visited their dealership twice. They said she did receive delayed attention on her first visit. But they denied that the delay had anything to do with sexism--and they denied that a member of their staff made an obscene gesture.

All the major auto makers agree that they need to spend time looking at the female market and how best to sell cars to women.

Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and all of their major foreign competitors are spending billions of dollars trying to fine-tune their products and marketing approaches to attract and hold women buyers.

“We certainly recognize that women perceive that they are not treated as well as they would like to be in auto dealerships,” said Arlene Reindel, a Chevrolet marketing spokeswoman.

That recognition prompted Chevrolet last year to start a national sales-training program, “Heart of the Market,” aimed at addressing the complaints of women car buyers.

45% of Chevy Buyers Women

The Chevrolet program was aptly named. “About 45% of Chevrolet buyers are women,” Reindel said.

Some auto dealers have been trying to sensitize their sales and service staffs by bringing in such consultants as Mary Jackson, a trained auto mechanic and president of Women at the Wheel, a group based in Boulder, Colo.

Jackson is paid by dealers to hold seminars in which mechanics, sellers and customers are taught how to talk to one another. The focus is primarily on teaching women how to ask specific questions about their vehicles. But men are invited too, Jackson said.

“It’s unfair to say that dealerships in general treat women badly. Some dealers are trying to educate their staffs to treat people equally,” she said.

But sexist treatment of women, to the extent that it’s found in dealerships, usually stems from ignorance, Jackson said: “Some dealers just don’t see it as a problem. But their women customers do. Other dealers recognize the problem. But they aren’t quite sure what to do about it. So they do nothing and lose sales.”

Not Linda Jones, president of Linda Jones Chrysler-Plymouth in Beaver Falls, Pa. She knew exactly what to do.

Jones had no previous experience when she took over her husband’s dealership after his death 3 years ago. But she was determined to hold onto the business and overcame opposition from some male employees by simply firing them.


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