Mercedes Dealer’s Tactics Added To My List of Horrible Car Shopping Experiences (And I Still Need To Buy A Car!)

December 30, 2009

I’m here to tell you that automotive journalists do not like to car shop. Sure, we love most things on four wheels, but I, like most of my industry-mates would rather get a prostate check by a broken-knuckled rugby player-turned-urologist than to interact with on-the-prowl car salespeople.

For me, specifically, it’s because I know way too much. I spend more time researching cars than the frequently-wrong-but-never-in-doubt people who sell them. As for the business and sales tactics side, much of my life I’ve been surrounded by dealership owners, salesmen, service managers, and attorneys who represent them. Let’s just say that I know all the tricks, which would be enough to turn most people to public transportation.

My personal log of horrible car shopping experiences is longer than Danny Bonaduce’s 12-Step “people to make amends to” list.They range from the frustrating: arranging for a test drive of a Honda S2000 over the phone with a sales manager at a Honda dealership in Houston, only to be told upon arriving twenty minutes later at that I could “drive it after I bought it”…to the surreal: having a clown-shoe car salesman at Bruce Titus Chrysler in Olympia, WA challenge me and my 2002 Corvette “to a race for pink slips” first against his (meaning the dealer’s) Crossfire SRT6 and then against his “Shelby” (meaning 2.2-liter Turbo I-powered Dodge Shelby Charger) when all I was there to do was take a test drive of a 300 to see if I liked it better than the Toyota Avalon…which I didn’t.

I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been asked “what will it take to get you into this car today?” And if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a car salesman make a claim about a specific vehicle that was such a blatant falsehood that any kid with a car magazine subscription or Internet access could call the bluff, I feel like I could pay cash for a Maybach.

Still, my wife’s twelve-year-old Oldsmobile is in dire need of replacement. She’s going to take the 2006 Toyota Avalon, which leaves me needing another four-door sedan. Like it or not, that means car shopping and the chance of adding to the list of dealer horror stories.

This past weekend we set out to test drive the three finalists, the BMW 750Li, Audi A8L and Mercedes S550, and find our top choice. Our budget and sense of priorities prohibiting the nearly $100K new price, we targeted certified-pre-owned 2007 or 2008 as the sweet spot. So out I went with the wife and two daughters (take your family, and the dealers know you’re not just out for a joy ride) to the dealers in and around Tacoma, WA.

Our first stop was to BMW Northwest in Fife, where a test of a 2006 750Li quickly ruled out any pre-2009 7-Series. When I explained to the salesman that I felt the Bimmer was underwhelming with a very un-BMW-like lack of steering feel and a distracting amount of seemingly useless technology, he politely thanked us for trying the car.

Next it was on to the dealership next door — Mercedes Benz of Tacoma at Fife, where Pre-Owned Sales Manager Eric Brillhart introduced us to a 2007 S550. With black paint and a Savannah-Cashmere interior it looked elegant. During the same test loop as with the BMW, the S550 shined with prodigious power, seamless shifts from the seven-speed tranny, great road feel, and the most amazing massaging seats ever invented. Admitting to Eric that my wife was instantly hooked, I still explained that I needed to complete my due-diligence and drive the A8L. I even said “I know statistics say that if we leave, we’re not coming back…but remember, the same stats also indicate if we come back, you’ve got us.”

Courteously, he called over to Audi of Tacoma, another Robert Larson-owned dealership, to let them know we would be over for a test drive after getting a bite to eat.

Going into the day, the A8L had been at the top of my short list. After a ride in a three-year-old S550, though, the brand new 2009 Audi A8L seemed dated. The sporty feeling came at the cost of an overly tight suspension. Despite other journalists who praise Audi ergonomics, I found the interior dark, plain and lacking the comfort of the Mercedes. On the whole the Audi just wasn’t as refined. And the dealership? Had we not gone to pull a salesman away from a conversation outside the building, we would have stood there alone forever!

So we returned to Mercedes Benz of Tacoma at Fife, where we sat in the lobby for about fifteen minutes as Eric Brillhart helped another couple. (Thank goodness for Nintendo DS, or my daughters would have lost it by now.) Finally with the couple out on a test drive he invited us over to his desk. He launched us into about ten minutes of small talk discussing garage space, drums (which we both play), and then finally he asked me how much I wanted to pay for the car, since, he said, I “obviously have a number in my head.”

He had told us before the test drive that the asking price was $62,500, which Eric admitted was way too aggressive for a 32,000-mile 2007 that had sat on the lot for too long. (He was I unaware that I had seen the car offered on Autotrader.com and M-B’s CPO site for $59,900.) I didn’t throw out a number, rather choosing to note that other dealers were advertising their S550s from 48-to-58-thousand and indicating that it would be safe to assume “low fifties” was top market.

Eric got up and walked into the sales floor manager’s office and didn’t return for ten minutes. I pointed out to my wife that I had forgotten to request that he not to try the old wait ‘em out trick — the longer a mark sits in the chair the more they’ll pay at the end of the deal. In my case, it just makes me more tired and less likely to spend anything.

When he got back he said “I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is the car sold while you were out, but the good news is that we have this other car — same configuration, slightly higher miles and we can offer it at $53,00″.

Ah crap, here we go again!

Eric left to check the in-service date of the car’s warranty, and upon returning to the desk, my wife hit him with: “I might be young, but I’m not stupid. Do you really expect us to believe that a car you said earlier has been sitting here for a really long time actually sold in the two hours we were gone?”

Now if someone had called me a liar to my face (and I was innocent) I’d vigorously defend my honor and my practices. I’d even get some proof in the form of paperwork. The salesmen didn’t even seem to put up a fight, instead giving a half-assed emotionless line trying to claim he had nothing to gain by claiming it was sold, and that he was mad that he had gone through the effort of washing it only to have another salesman sell it. My six-year-old daughter gave a more believable performance last month when she claimed she didn’t eat any cookies before dinner, and she had crumbs all over her face.

Still there was the other “available” car that was being offered. With iPhone in hand I went down the list of CPO 2007 S550s available for under $50K on Mercedes-Benz’s own site, and simply explained the price this dealer was offering was three-grand over the advertised starting prices of identical cars, such as one offered at Barrier Mercedes less than 50 miles away. We got up and walked out.

We walked to our car, and parked next to it was the very same “sold” S550 that had lured us to the dealership in the first place. My wife walked back in and notified Eric that the car was still on the lot (and had been moved next to our car while we were in being told it was sold). “They’re doing the paperwork as we speak” he claimed. Seeing nobody else in the dealership, my wife laughed, shook her head and walked out.

Mercedes Benz of Tacoma simply wanted to maximize profit — and that’s not a crime. What they did, however, was bad for business, horrible for its reputation… and statistically a bad play. When the salesman and sales floor manager got the feeling that price was an issue with us, they saw the opportunity to bait and switch in a less desirable car with a higher margin that could look like a better deal by fitting within my aforementioned price range. Unfortunately for them, they had totally misread us. We didn’t try to negotiate down due to being cash-strapped — we could have afforded the full inflated asking price, rather it simply wasn’t a good deal based on competitive listings. Had he or the salesman simply given a slightly better bottom line price, I might have paid more than market on the original car just for convenience sake, but instead the BS led us to leave.

We will certainly be buying a 2007 or 2008 S550…just not from Mercedes Benz of Tacoma. Sure, I could buy one from an auction (I have four friends who are brokers), but I still lean towards a CPO car with a known service history given all the technology. I might also want to take advantage of MBUSA’s subsidized financing.

So here’s hoping that there’s a Mercedes dealer out there who understands that some of us are sick of the same old tired dealer tricks, time wasting tactics and scams. Can’t we just agree on a price based on the real market, after which I’ll give them the money and they can give me the car?


A Press Release That Sends The Wrong Message

December 10, 2009

It seems that GM is back to its old ways again — showing it is as out of touch as it is plain bad at this whole PR thing.

The company just sent a press release titled “CEO Ed Whitacre Visits Flint Assembly Plant”. Now slap me silly if I’m wrong, but it’s really bad to have a marketing message indicating that either a) the CEO (who might be new to the position, but has been the Chairman of the Board for plenty of time) has never visited one of the corporation’s larger facilities, or b) it is really uncommon in terms of the prevailing corporate culture to have a sitting CEO or Chairman actually set foot in one of its manufacturing plants.

Now I might not be GM’s type of marketing or PR professional, (which is to say I have both marketing and automobile market experience — a degree from an actual major university in Business with a concentraion in Marketing (Dean’s List thank you very much), product and corporate marketing leadership positions, and a decade of automotive journalism), but I’d suggest to the PR team that creating releases pinpointing that it has taken corporate executives far too long to witness how the company actually produces its products is a really, really bad tactic. If Whitacre had visited Flint the week after taking over as Chairman, it would be one thing, but many weeks after firing the last CEO and assuming the role himself???

Just for giggles, here’s the whole release:

CEO Ed Whitacre Visits Flint Assembly Plant
2009-12-10

Saying he just wanted to “see what’s here,” Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre spent four hours this week walking the line, visiting and talking with employees at the Flint Assembly Plant.

Whitacre, wearing faded jeans and casual brown pullover, could have passed for a member of the Flint Assembly team. However, the plant received 24 hours notice that Whitacre was coming.

“I’ve been confined to the office,” he said at the start of the visit. “I just wanted to come up to Flint and see what’s here.”

Passing on a formal business update, Whitacre chose instead to mingle and chat with the people. “If you don’t know me and I don’t know you, it’s not good. We’re in this together.”

He listened attentively as employees talked about some of the challenges and opportunities facing GM. In response, he challenged people to “step up” and take risks. “Nothing is going to happen if you don’t do the right thing.”

Questions about the viability of the company were met with another challenge. “We’re sitting in a pretty good position to pull this (recovery) off,” Whitacre said. “Not many companies get a second chance. If people are not optimistic, we will not get it done.”

Finally, couldn’t the company have edited Whitacre’s quotes? Come on now — “to come up to Flint and see what’s here” is right out of the Admiral Stockdale “Who Am I And Why Am I Here” Book of Lines That Don’t Inspire Confidence! What did he think was up there — a magic hat out which popped cars with Chevy emblems?