Monday, May 25, 2015

Fine Print Serves No "Good" Purpose

Fine print taken from a car dealer's ad in last Saturday's (5-23-15) Palm Beach Post and magnified 10X
There are lots of federal and state laws that that are supposed to “regulate” fine print in advertising. My premise is why should we only “regulate” something that is patently wrong; why not just ban it? 

The Federal Trade Commission has regulations on fine print with language that says the fine print may not change the implied intent of the main advertising message. In other words, if an advertisement states a price, the fine print cannot have hidden costs like dealer fees and dealer installed accessories which increase the real price. Florida laws state that the fine print must be of sufficient size and location so as to be “readable” All of these laws and rules are largely ignored mainly because “nobody reads the fine print anyway”.

In TV advertisements you’d have to be a speed reader to have any chance of reading the fine print and this is assuming you have exceptional eyesight. Have you noticed radio’s version of fine print? They record a 20 second disclosure of the advertisement and double or triple the speed when it’s broadcast it so that you hear it in only 5 seconds. Furthermore, notice that the volume is much lower than the rest of the message, a different much softer voice is used and oftentimes it’s played at the very beginning of the advertisement so that your mind doesn’t even associate it with the advertising message. 

I am suggesting that we pass laws, state and federal, banning fine print entirely from advertising. It would be a good idea to ban fine print in all things including contracts. The saving grace in contracts is that we can pay a lawyer to read the contract for us. 

I believe that lawyers are the cause of fine print not being made illegal. Lawyers derive a significant percentage of their income by creating fine print for contracts and later interpreting the fine print that they wrote in incomprehensible legalese. We almost always pay a lawyer to read the contracts when we buy or sell a home, but nobody pays a lawyer to read a contract when they buy a car. I’ve been a car dealer for close to half a century, I never remember a buyer completely reading the fine print on any of the paperwork or having a lawyer do so. If we did read all of the fine print, we wouldn’t understand because it’s deliberately worded to make it too difficult to comprehend for anybody except a lawyer. 

I challenge any lawyer, car dealer, or anybody else to tell me one saving grace for fine print in advertising or contracts. Tell me why it wouldn’t be better for everybody (except car dealers and other advertisers and lawyers) if all language pertinent to an advertisement or contract was stated in large, easily understood print, audio, or video. 

If you are able to read the fine print above, it says that the prices advertised in the large, obvious and colorful print above the fine print is not the price that you can buy those vehicles for. It says that in addition you must pay a $599.95 dealer fee plus the cost of dealer installed options. There is no description of what these dealer installed options consist of or what they cost. There are numerous other restrictions such as the prices are good only on May 23, the cars advertised may already be sold, you have must the advertisement with you, rebates and incentives used to calculate these prices can change without notice, and the models and equipment shown may not be the car they will sell you for the advertised price.

I don’t realistically believe that fine print will ever be made illegal, at least not in this century. We have too many lawyers in the USA and I don’t just mean lawyers that are practicing law. Our legislators are lawyers, our judges are lawyers, our federal and state attorney generals are lawyers as well as our local state attorneys. Talk about a stacked deck!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Negotiating to Buy a Car

Buying a new or used car is one of the last bastions of the negotiated price. In some countries, negotiation is fairly commonplace in retail stores, but in America virtually all products are sold at a fixed price. Some of us are simply not comfortable negotiating and most of us are not very good at it.
As I have said in previous columns, the best way to buy a new or used car in on the Internet. You can do your research on which car is the best to suit your needs, get guidance on what kind of price you can expect to pay, and finally get quotes from several dealerships on that specific car. However, everybody is not “Internet savvy” and if you are not, you may find it necessary to walk into a car dealership and negotiate for the lowest price.
If you are not comfortable with negotiation, the best advice I can give you is to bring someone along with you who is. Car sales people and sales managers are trained experts in negotiation. This is how they make their living. Here are some tips for you if you decide that you want to negotiate the best price on a car: 
  • If you have a trade-in, keep that separate from the negotiation. Negotiate the best price on the car you are buying and then negotiate the best price you can get for your trade-in. Don’t fall for the old “over allowance” on your trade-in ruse. This is where the dealer makes up the price of car you are buying higher so that he can make you think you are getting more for your trade-in.  

  • Never buy a car on payments alone. Always negotiate the best price you can for the car you are buying and then calculate your best payment when you have negotiated for the best interest rate. 
 
  • Be sure you understand how the dealer arrived at his retail price. Federal law dictates that a Monroney label be affixed to every vehicle with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Many dealers mark that up with another label, often referred to as a “Market Adjustment Addendum”. This markup can be several thousands of dollars. 
  • Expect the first price you are given to be substantially higher than what you can buy the car for. Sales people and sales managers are trained to “start high because you can always come down”. Don’t be afraid to offer substantially less than the initial asking price. You should look at just like the car salesman does, but the reverse…”start low because you can always go higher”. If the salesman accepts your first offer, you probably offered too much. In fact, shrewd car sales people are trained to always ask for more money, even if the offer is good one. This is because they don’t want to “scare off the customer” by telegraphing to the customer that he “left some money on the table”. 
 
  • If the sales person asks you for a deposit before he will begin negotiating, determine whether the deposit is refundable. Florida law requires a nonrefundable deposit be disclosed in writing on the receipt. If this is printed on your receipt, insist that this be waived in writing on your buyer’s order. If the dealer will not agree to this, be warned that he may be able to keep your deposit if you change your mind about buying the car. 
 
  • Be prepared for a lot of “back and forth” when the salesman takes your offer back to the manager. When you get close to finding a mutually acceptable price, the manager himself will often come to talk to you. Don’t be intimidated stick to your guns even when they tell you this is “positively, absolutely the lowest price”. Even if you think you do have the lowest price, a great strategy is to get up, walk out of the showroom, and get into your car to drive away. This will often precipitate an even better price. When you try this, the worst case scenario is that you really do drive home, but you can always return and buy the car the next day for the last price they quoted you. They may tell you that you have to buy today, but nine times out of ten that is a bluff. The only exception is when there are factory rebates and incentive expiring. 
 
  • The last day of the month really is a good time to buy a car. The salesman’s bonus money is maximized, the factory incentives are in effect, the managers are desperate to make their quotas, and it is the one time of the month when the buyer has the best edge in negotiation.
Caveat emptor “let the buyer beware” could have been written specifically for what you can expect when you walk into a car dealership to negotiate the best price. You are up against experts who negotiate for living. But, if you will follow my advice above, you should be able to hold your own and maybe even get a great deal.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Is Paying Cash for a Car a Bad Idea?

When I was growing up, my parents taught me that if I wanted to buy something expensive, I should save my money until I had enough in the bank to pay cash for it. It was the old school, “Neither a lender nor borrower be” school of thought. Actually, that hasn’t been a bad school of thought for most of my life; especially when you look at the Great Recession that we’re slowly emerging from. Easy credit was a big part of the cause of the most severe recession since the Great Depression of the thirties.But today we’re experiencing interest rates that are lower than any time any of us can remember. We’re also experiencing a stock market that offers record high returns on investment and investing very conservatively can give you’re a return greater than the cost of borrowing money if you have good credit. The average transaction price on a new car today is about $35,000. If you invested that $35,000 in the stock market, you could expect to earn at least 10% compounded over the next four years. You would have $52,211 in your investment account at the end of 48 months, a total return of $17,211. If you have excellent credit and borrowed the money at 2% (there are even lower rates available), you would pay only $1,478 in interest over 48 months. You net profit, subtracting the interest from your investment return is $15,733!

Even if you’re ultra conservative and don’t want to invest in stocks, there are bonds, even tax free municipal bonds, paying higher than 2%, the cost of your car loan. There are many blue chip stocks paying dividend yields higher than 2%. For a person with good credit, it is “absolute insanity” to pay cash for a new or used car today. Interest rates will go up eventually and we should take advantage of these low rates because we may never see them this low again in our lifetimes.

But, remember that the only reason all of this is true is because of these historically row rates. Your car dealer will not offer you a low rate unless he has to. On the average, car dealers make more money financing your car than they do selling it to you. Car dealers get kick-backs from banks based on the interest rate they charge you. They call this kick-back finance reserve and it can amount to thousands of dollars on a car sales. Your sales person is paid on profits from the dealer’s finance department. You cannot get a complete and honest answer from your salesman if you ask him about interest rates. You should have already shopped for your interest rate with your credit union and bank before you began car shopping. By the way, credit unions usually have lower rates than banks because they are less regulated and have lower expenses than banks. If your workplace does not have a credit union, you can join one anyway. There is a small fee for joining, but it is well worth the savings you’ll realize on your checking account and borrowing money.

There are situations when the dealer, through your car’s manufacturer, can meet or beat even a credit union rate. This is rare, but worth looking into. Manufacturers will offer very low rates, even 0%, to stimulate sales of certain models. Rarely does it apply to all models and these low rates are offered as an “either-or” to cash rebates. Be very careful not to be misled by this “either or” of low interest rate OR cash rebate. Most dealers advertise prices including the cash rebate but they also offer in the same advertisement the low rate. This “either or” may or may not be disclosed in the fine print.

There is one more caveat to using the dealer’s (manufacturer’s) low rate. The dealer still has a trick or two up his sleeve offering a lower rate than a bank. Those tricks are add-on products like extended warranties, maintenance contracts, GAP insurance and a plethora of other products, many of which are overpriced and/or worthless.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Good and Bad Car Dealer Lists

Nancy Stewart and I did a weekly radio talk show on Seaview Radio in North Palm Beach for 7 years, took a year off, and now we’re back on the radio with a 2 hour weekly talk show, Earl Stewart on Cars, every Tuesday from 4-6 PM. You can tune in this show at “900 AM the Talk of the Palm Beaches” or you can stream it at www.StreamEarlOnCars.com. Every week we send a mystery shopper into a South Florida car dealership that pretends to buy or lease a car. I discuss the results on my radio show every week. This information allows me to build a dealer database of information that is very beneficial to you when you go out to buy or lease a car. Because my information from a year ago is somewhat dated, I’m beginning a new list of dealers I recommend and those that I don’t.

I use information in addition to the mystery shopping reports in constructing this list including my personal acquaintance with certain car dealers, Google ratings and other business rating services, and input from customers of these dealers. I get a lot of emails, letters, and phone calls from people that have been taken advantage of. I also get some calls from customers of dealers that received good treatment. I encourage you to contact my with any information about your recent car buying experiences. My email address is earl@estoyota.com and you can call or text me at 561 358-1474. Finally, I look at dealers who are affiliated with TrueCar, www.TrueCar.com. In full disclosure, I’m a TrueCar dealer, stockholder, and a member of their national dealer council. Being a TrueCar dealer doesn’t get a dealer on my Good Dealer List, but it is a positive sign. AutoNation is the dealership group in the USA with about 250 dealerships. There are a large number in South Florida. I admire and respect Michael Jackson, the CEO of AutoNation and believe he encourages his dealerships to do the right thing by their customers, but just like TrueCar, there are AutoNation dealers who don’t qualify for my Good Dealer List. Mike Jackson can’t personally police 250 dealerships.

I also encourage car dealers to contact me with information as to why they should be on the Good Dealer List or why they should be removed from the Bad Dealer List. I have a large following in South Florida and I honestly believe that being on the Good Dealer List would be good for business. In fact, I would be happy to meet with any car dealers who would like to sit down and discuss this with me.

I’m releasing these lists before they are finished because of the large number of requests I’m getting from the public. Please understand that this list is not complete and is a “work in progress”. Dealers that appear on these lists will be supplemented and some will be deleted. I strongly urge you to let me know of any experiences that you’ve had with any dealers on either list, good or bad. Finally, please be advised that being on the Good Dealer List doesn’t mean that you can “let down your guard”. The dealers on this list are the better than others but none have received an A+ rating from our mystery shopper. The 2nd best score on this list was Gunther Volkswagen of Delray with a B+. Some of these dealers have received C and C- scores. I’m hoping to see all the scores improve on this list, but sadly, the average car dealership in South Florida is not nearly as good as it can and should be.

Finally, I debated with myself long and hard about including my dealership on the Good Dealer List. Doing so gives the appearance of being self-serving. In fact, it is self-serving. I admit this but that is not why I included it; I did so because I honestly believe we are a Good Dealership. I give my dealership an A- rating because I know we can improve and we will.

Good Dealer List
  • Mullinax Ford in North Palm Beach
  • Schumacher Chevrolet in North Palm Beach
  • Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach
  • Johnson Honda; Stuart
  • Delray Nissan (AutoNation) in Delray
  • Wallace Hyundai in Stuart
  • Delray Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram in Delray
  • Gunther Kia in Ft. Lauderdale
  • Schumacher GMC in North Palm Beach
  • Delray Subaru in Delray
  • Vista BMW in Pompano Beach
  • Gunther VW in Delray
  • Mercedes Benz of Delray in Delray
  • Gunther Mazda in Ft. Lauderdale
  • JM Lexus in Cocoanut Creek
  • Schumacher Buick in North Palm Beach
  • Audi of Stuart in Stuart
Bad Dealer List
  • Grieco Mazda of North Palm Beach 
  • Napleton Hyundai of West Palm Beach and North Palm Beach
  • West Palm Beach Kia
  • Napleton Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram of North Palm Beach
  • Napleton Kia in Riviera Beach
  • Napleton Nissan in Riviera Beach
  • Al Hendrickson Toyota in Coconut Creek
  • Lake Park Mitsubishi
  • Braman Honda in Greenacres

Monday, April 20, 2015

Good People Make Good Car Dealerships

In my columns over the years I’ve always advocated carefully choosing the car dealership that you buy your vehicle from or allow to service it. I still believe this is important. In fact, I recently published a list of dealers that I recommend you buy your car from and a list that I recommend you avoid. We’ve all visited a restaurant or retail store and had a terrible experience with a waitress, sales person, or other employee and never returned. Yet, we’ll friends recommending the same store that we swore never to patronize. We condemned an entire company because of one person.

I also wrote a column a couple of years ago in which I suggested that you carefully choose the individual who advises you and sells you service on your car. These individuals are really commissioned sales people who sell you service just like car sales people sell you cars. Unfortunately most dealerships call them something else like “assistant service manager” or service advisor. In my dealership we used to call them Assistant Service Managers because that’s the term that Toyota uses. We now call them “service advisors” because too many people thought they were dealing with the service manager. In all candor, I’d feel more comfortable naming them what they are, “service sales people” and I may make that change.

It occurred to me that the same recommendation applies to all companies, not just car dealerships and it applies to all departments in a company. Whichever car dealership you choose, take the time to pick and choose those individuals you deal with. Car dealerships, just like other organizations, are nothing more than the sum of their parts…their people. You should get to know the person who sells you service and, if you don’t like him, ask for another person to handle your service requirements. You should also meet and cultivate a manager in the service department.

The same holds for the sales department. When you buy a car, don’t settle for the first salesman who approaches you. For example, if you’re a woman you may feel more comfortable dealing with another woman. Or, if your native language is Spanish or Cajun, you may feel more comfortable with one who can converse with you in your native tongue. Don’t be shy about asking and don’t feel bad about hurting the feelings of the first sales person. An automobile is the 2nd largest purchase most people make and it’s very important that you feel comfortable with the person selling it to you. Furthermore, if after dealing with your sales person for a while, you think you made a bad choice, ask to speak to the sales manager or general manager. Believe me, car buyers hold all the cards in today’s shaky economy and no sane sales manager is going to lose a sale because a prospective customer doesn’t like or trust the sales person she’s dealing with. He will handle your sale personally or choose another sales person you do feel good about.

Car dealerships have other departments including parts, finance and insurance, accounting, and some have body shops. My same recommendation applies to all departments. A word of caution, when you ask to speak to a manager, be sure you’re really are truly speaking to one. Car dealerships are notorious for calling rank and file employees managers to trick the customer.

My purpose in writing this column is in realization of the fact that there are no perfect companies, especially car dealerships and that includes mine. I employ 150 individuals and I would be less than candid if I didn’t say I have a few rotten apples in my barrel. Unfortunately, I don’t know who they are and finding them is a continuous work in progress. The same thing applies to all companies including car dealerships. In my list of recommended dealers, there are some employees of those dealerships who would take advantage of you but most would not. In those dealerships that I recommend you don’t buy your car from, there may be a few honest, courteous employees. Then there are all the dealerships that I don’t put in either category. Your odds of finding the right individual are much better if you patronize a good company or car dealership, but don’t totally let your guard down.

Just stay away from the ones that I recommend you don’t deal with. In every organization there’s a tipping point. A great company reaches a critical mass of good employees and as their reputation grows, more good employees from other companies seek to be employed there. Honest, hardworking, courteous people enjoy working in an environment where others are like them. The same holds true for evil dealerships and bad companies (those on my “don’t buy” list). A good person with a conscience has a very difficult time functioning in an environment where, from top management all the way down, the design is to trick and take advantage of customers. These few good people don’t last long in evil dealerships and flee to a place where they can treat their customers in a manner that lets them sleep at night.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) aka The Secret Warranty

Last Friday, the New York Times ran an article entitled “GM Deems Steering Issue Unworthy of Recall’. In the article is a quote from one of many GM owners who wrote the NHTSA on this problem: “I was driving through a construction zone when my steering wheel locked up,” the owner of a 2013 Buick Verano wrote the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in December. The owner is one of more than 50 who cited a similar problem to the agency. Clearly, this is a serious and frightening issue; so why isn’t GM issuing a recall?

Last July, G.M. sent dealers a technical service (TSB) bulletin that told them how to fix the problem, but only if an owner complained to a dealer. This practice in not unique to General Motors; all manufacturers employ TSB’s. They are sometimes referred to as “secret warranties” because the manufacturers don’t notify the owners of the cars that are affected and they even forbid the dealers to advise the customer. 

The reason that auto manufacturers don’t tell their customers and won’t allow car dealers to tell them either is clearly to keep down their expense of repairing these vehicles. They are afraid if they go public with the manufacturing defect too many customers will come in to have the repair made. And the reason manufacturers advise their dealers not to tell the customer unless the customer complains is that they simply don’t trust their dealers to be honest about fixing cars that need repair. 

There are voluminous numbers of TSB’s sent out, around 20 monthly depending on the manufacturer. It’s close to impossible for a car dealer’s service personnel to keep up with most of them. In other words, when you drive your car into a car dealer’s service drive, there’s a good chance that the service advisor/salesman has no idea that there is a Technical Service Bulletin issued on your vehicle. If he happened to know that there was one issued, he is forbidden by the manufacturer to tell you about it unless you complain! 

The NY Times article was written because the writer felt that this GM problem of a steering wheel sticking should have been considered a safety defect. A safety defect, by law, must be addressed by a recall of all affected vehicles. I can’t understand how GM or any auto manufacturer would not consider a problem with a steering wheel sticking not to be a safety issue. GM argued that all the driver had to do was to apply additional force to “unstick” the steering wheel. This may be true, but how would some people react to a steering wheel that was stuck in one position? A young, inexperienced driver, an elderly driver, or a very nervous, excitable driver may overreact by yanking the steering wheel too hard or freezing. 

I think the point to be made is that the decision on whether a defect is a safety issue or not should not be made by the auto manufacturer; it should be made by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA. Every Technical Service Bulletin, TSB, should be shared with NHTSA and they should make this determination and order the manufacturer to recall all defective vehicles on safety issues. 

Many recalls began with the TSB. Rather than seriously analyzing the defect, the manufacturers issue the TSB which NHTSA and most owners of that particular car never learn of. In fact, due to the high volume of TSB’s most dealers are unaware of them too. The manufacturers wait until they have a large number of complaints from customers and until they can count a number of injuries and/or deaths before they issue a recall. The NHTSA began looking into this issue with GM 5 years ago and recently concluded its investigation after reviewing 3,465 complaints from owners including allegations of 107 crashes resulting in 40 injuries. One can only speculate on why the NHTSA would not order a recall at this point of crashes and injuries. There is dissention in the NHTSA over this decision and, I’m guessing, a recall will be issued soon largely due to this NY Times news report. 

What can you do to protect yourself until this issue is rectified? First, ask your car dealer to see if there are any TSB’s issued on the specific year-make-model car you drive. He will look in his computer for this. Secondly, I also recommend that you go on the Internet and Google the question. You can input your VIN and the year-make-model and ask are there any Technical Repair Bulletins TSB’s? If there is one or more TSB’s on your car, you should demand that that the car be repaired as indicated by the TSB. There is the possibility that the defect is not detectable at this time and mileage of your car and also the possibility that it will not manifest itself at all. My recommendation is that if there is any question about whether the defect exists, insist on having the repair made. The cost is covered by the manufacturer as long as the vehicle is still covered under the factory warranty (in terms of time and mileage). However, many manufacturers will offer assistance with TSB repairs to owners if their vehicles are out of warranty, so make sure you ask!

Monday, April 06, 2015

Tell Your Car Dealer to be Nice!

About twenty-six years ago a car dealer in Dallas, Texas wrote a book entitled Customers for Life. His name is Carl Sewell and the book describes in detail why treating your customers with care, courtesy, respect and dignity is the surest way to success in the retail automobile business. Carl Sewell was ahead of his time then and he’s “still” ahead of his time. When I first read this book many years ago, I wished that I had written it myself. I learned a lot from Customers for Life and it had a major impact on my business and my life.

If you would like a free copy of this book, just go to my Web site, www.EarlStewartToyota.com, click on the link under the picture of the book where it says “complimentary copy click here”. Some of the chapters in the book are “The customer will tell you how to provide good service, if the customer asks, the answer is always yes, there’s no such thing as after hours, under-promise and over-deliver, and you can’t give good service if you sell a lousy product. When you read this book, you should have a pretty good idea of how you should expect to be treated by your car dealer, or any retail business establishment.

Remember that Carl Sewell is not just a “nice guy”, but also a very shrewd businessman. He learned that by treating customer so nicely and fairly that he actually exceeded their expectations, these customer continued to buy from him “for the rest of their lives”; Hence the title, Customers for Life. Back in 1990 he calculated that the average customer for life bought $517,000 in cars and service from him over their lifetime. Adjusted for inflation, that would amount to closer to $1,000,000 today. Furthermore these customers referred their friends, neighbors, and relatives. Also, Carl Sewell did not have to spend any advertising money to persuade them to buy from him. It is no wonder that he is one of the largest volume and most profitable car dealers in the USA.

Carl also believes in treating his employees with the same courtesy, care, and respect that he treats his customers. Have you ever been embarrassed in a retail business when a boss chewed out a subordinate in front of you? Chapter 13 is entitled “Who’s more important? Your customer or your employee? A: Both. When you enter a car dealership where the employees are more like team mates and genuinely care for each other and their supervisors you can practically feel it in the air. You feel more comfortable and trusting and more confident that, if they treat each other like this, you will be treated similarly. This is a direct quote from Customers for Life. “It’s very rare to see a manager who treats his customers one way and his employees another. And it’s awfully hard for employees to treat customers well if the boss treats them badly.”

After you read Customers for Life, why not loan it to your car dealer? Remember that this is not a “do-gooder” kind of a book. The message is that a businessman can be more successful and profitable by employing the recommendations of this book. Loaning your car dealer this book would be doing him a favor. Most car dealers should have heard of Carl Sewell. He is one of the most successful car dealers in the county and his book is considered by manufacturers and dealers to be the “bible” for customer satisfaction. If they haven’t heard about Carl Sewell, feel free to use me as a reference. Reading Customers for Life had a major positive impact on my success and the reputation I enjoy as a car dealer.