Say goodbye to the car salesman

The Internet has changed the business. Now, instead of walking dealership lots, staffers are chatting online and answering email.

By MSN Money Partner Nov 21, 2013 1:24PM
Image: Car salesman showing couple new silver hatchback in car showroom © Juice Images/Cultura/Getty ImagesBy Christina Rogers, The Wall Street Journal

A car salesman used to spend long days on his feet. Now he's becoming like everyone else -- stuck most days in a chair in front of a computer screen.


The Internet has been upending car sales for more than 15 years. That change is now coming down hard on the people on the front lines -- converting them more into concierges than hand-shaking sales maestros.


Customers are simply different today. They've scoured the Web for up-to-date price information and have probably made a decision even before showing up on a dealer's lot. The salesman doesn't have as much to do.


"The whole process of buying a car has been flipped-flop from what it used to be," said Alison Spitzer, vice president of Spitzer Auto Group in Elyria, Ohio. "Today, customers find the car first, then the dealership."


Take Mia Morris, the new face of auto sales. The 30-year-old doesn't work on commission, isn't interested in haggling over price and spends more time online conversing with customers than on the showroom floor.


Her business card identifies her as "product specialist," and the low-key title matches her duties at Nissan of Manhattan. Instead of the hard sell, she says her job is more tutorial. "Everything is visible. It is transparent for the customers," she said. "It is more like trying to help them find the right car and make a smart choice."


Before price-information websites like TrueCar.com and Edmunds.com, dealers typically had the upper hand in negotiating a car's price, and often could score a healthy profit on a sale.


Today, buyers call or walk into a showroom already armed with a car's invoice price, competing dealer bids and discounts from the manufacturers, and can get updates on their cellphones while standing in the store. They can access online reviews of the salesperson and dealership.


That has led many dealers to eliminate commissioned pay, price new vehicles closer to their own costs and station more staff in front of computers, where they are rewarded for generating sales quickly and in higher volumes, rather than trying to talk a customer into buying a more expensive model.


According to AutoTrader Group, a research and marketing firm, the average car shopper spends more than 11 hours online researching cars and only 3.5 hours offline, including trips to the dealership. Two years ago, the average time spent offline was more than six hours.


The economics is forcing some of the changes. Average gross profit on a new-car sale dropped to $1,283 last year from $1,531 in 2002, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.


The average salary of a sales person rose to $63,800 last year from $45,940 in 2002, but that is only slightly ahead of inflation during the same period, said Ted Kraybill, president of DeltaTrends, a firm that studies workforce trends at car dealership.


Responding to such trends, Spitzer Auto in Ohio got rid of sales commissions three years ago, and now pays all its salespeople a flat rate for each car they sell and a twice-monthly bonus for hitting sales targets.


The chain also instituted a no-haggle policy, setting an advertised price and sticking to it. "The customers like it because they don't feel pressured," said Jeff Deisz, a 30-year-old salesman at Al Spitzer Ford in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.


"It doesn't make me seem as pushy, and I know what I'm going to make upfront," Mr. Deisz added.


Large dealership chains like AutoNation (AN) are testing new ways of paying sales people because of shrinking per-vehicle profit. Mike Maroone, chief operating officer of AutoNation, the largest U.S. auto retailer by number of outlets, said it is looking at a combination of salary and volume-based commissions, but "it is still too early to say where this goes."


At Nissan of Manhattan, where Ms. Morris works, signs facing the entrance tout the dealership's new approach with phrases like "no more commissioned sales people" and "finally, no more back and forth to see the sales manager."


John Iacono, co-president of Bram Auto Group, which owns the store, said: he was inspired by the simplicity of Apple's (AAPL) retail stores."Why do we make it so complicated?" Mr. Iacono said. "In the last 100 years, automobiles have gone from near-horse buggies to almost driving themselves. And yet, the way they are sold hasn't changed."


Since the move, the store has increased sales, doubled its closing rate with customers and cut the time it takes to complete a sale to under an hour, he said. Now, he is working to overhaul the auto retail group's 20 other stores along the same lines.


The transition hasn't been without its challenges.


When Mr. Iacono jettisoned sales commissions, more than three-quarters of his sales staff left, he said. The store had to hire new people, and went outside the car business to find new recruits. Ms. Morris previously sold gourmet foods.


At other stores, dealers are allocating more sales staff online to deal with the growing volume of inquiries that now come in over the Web.


At Toyota Sunnyvale, a dealership located in the heart of Silicon Valley, about half the store's sales staff are parked in front of computers and "do nothing but wait on customers digitally," said Adam Simms, chief operating officer of the store's owner, Price Simms Auto Group.


Among his online staff is Stan Wolowski, 59, an 18-year veteran of the car sales business who spends most days emailing customers and responding to inquiries that arrive through the store's website or via car-shopping sources, such as Cars.com.


Occasionally, he'll converse with customers using online chat -- a far cry from his days waiting for a showroom customer. "The guy walking onto the car lot is a dwindling end of the business," Mr. Wolowski said. "The heavy lifting is now done online and if you're not in that flow, you're not going to see the bulk of the business."


More from The Wall Street Journal

351Comments
Nov 21, 2013 3:11PM
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I was a Sales Manager, Leasing Manager, General  Sales Manager and a General Manager for such brands as BMW, Cadillac, Buick, Lincoln-Mercury, Infiniti, Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen, all over the span of about 18 years, through 2003.

 As evidenced here, there is little appreciation for the individual who is working very long hours, getting abused from both directions, and always taking a hit when the customer perceives that they may not have drained every last cent from a transaction.

I saw customers tell more lies, try to pawn off more wrecks, come back a week later claiming the dealer "damaged' their car in the shop, trade cars with major problems, etc., etc., than there is space to write about.

The salesperson always was the one getting the shaft....rarely the customer.

Just be fair....buy your next car directly from the factory or whatever....then call them for service and repair. Leave a message or be in line for the next agent to diagnose your problem. Think HP or Samsung. See how that goes for you.

 

 

Nov 21, 2013 3:31PM
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I don't want to buy a car on line, I want to see it, and drive it.
Nov 21, 2013 2:51PM
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The job of a salesman is to up sell a car and to get the best price for the dealership. That's not going away no matter how hard this article tries to convince otherwise. Salesmen aren't going anywhere. That's evident by simply visiting any dealership. The salesman are still hounding the lots.
Nov 21, 2013 3:16PM
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Went car shopping last weekend with my wife.  It was exactly the same as the first time we went car shopping together in 1990.
Nov 21, 2013 3:23PM
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There is good ones and bad ones.  Just like priests, pilots, heart surgeons, doctors etc.

 

The car biz is a great one.  It ain't going anywhere.  Yes, it's the customers who are the **** wads, not the salesmen.  I know a great guy who sells cars.  Like every job you have to deal with a ton of ****ing idiot customers.

 

Quit harshing on car salesmen and start ragging on these useless turds who "write shitty articles" for a living in the media, which is the worlds biggest dirt bag whore--the media that is.

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I have been selling cars and trucks for over 25 years. I have never cheated, or lied to anyone to sell them a car. The process of purchasing a car is and will always be a tiring and complicated. Unlike other items you purchase which there is only 1 step Price.  Purchasing a car usually involves a trade , financing options and the price of new car. With the  easy excess to information on the internet every purchaser becomes a wholesaler, a banker and thinks they know what the dealer is making. Here in lies the issue.

 After 25 years of selling I still might miss the valve of a trade , and the banks may not like your Financial Statement as well as you do and the Dealer is going to make something on The deal or there want be one.

  I enjoy the car business I have made many friends and some whom have never purchased from me.

I appreciate My Customers and not one of them do I take for granite.

 An old Customer told me once Three Things a person needs a Good Doctor, a Good Lawyer and a

Good Car Salesman. I take pride in being A Good Car Salesman.

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I deal for the vehicles I buy online. That includes motorcycles and heavy equipment. But if you buy something without driving it first you're dumb.
Nov 21, 2013 4:22PM
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So another occupation is disappearing.  Pretty soon the only viable occupations will be law enforcement and undertaking.  America does produce one thing in abundance--criminals.
Nov 21, 2013 4:13PM
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Their chatting online...with a car salesman. Stupid article. Have you tried to request info online. You get a car salesman calling you back! They try to set you up for a test drive! salesman aren't going anywhere. They're just working more hours and getting paid a lot less.
Nov 21, 2013 4:18PM
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Car salesman can be cutthroat and ruthless but you have to remember that they need to make money also. They all have families to feed also.  Now a days you don't make much off of new cars anyway.  It is in fact a very stressful job. Customer are sometimes no better-making appointments and than not having the courtesy to call or let them know they are not coming in or changed their minds. Spending time with a salesman only to get a credit approval and than go shop somewhere else since they know they can get approved.
Nov 21, 2013 4:33PM
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Ms. Christina Rogers (author) of this article has no idea what she is writing about which is so typical of internet writers.  I guess her fantasy about buying online would be great for plastic stuff sold at Wal-Mart but she has not considered that many customers have a car to trade and many potential customers have bad credit which requires an expert to get the buyer financed.  I suspect Ms. Rogers is eighteen if even that old.  If you are dealing with the over simplified assumptions that you have great credit and no trade in, her article might have some worth but she has missed every single point of what a salesperson has to do to close a deal.  As a buyer, would you provide your financial information over the internet?  As a dealer, would you appraise a trade in over the internet?  I think not.  Ms. Rogers perceptions are why salespeople treat so many women as idiots.  In this case she deserves the title. 
Nov 21, 2013 4:07PM
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Do not think so!  There are still too many baby boomers out there who want to talk to a real person before buying a car or truck.
Nov 21, 2013 5:25PM
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People that mistreat and are rude to sales staff have a lot to learn about life. Auto and RV sales people at many dealerships  put in 10  to 12 hours everyday, think that's easy? I was the principal of two dealerships for over 20 years. If you want a nice facility to walk into, a good staff, and service for your purchase, you will need to pay for it. Grinding down a sale to the point that the dealership makes very little, will not work for anyone. Do you want service, help, and a well groomed properly educated and trained sales staff to help you? You will pay for it, period. This can only be provided, when the dealer, salesman and service center make a good profit.
Do you go to the grocery store and ask for money off? Do grind on your doctor for a discount? Well the gooey mess made by the cheap moochy customers that want everything for nothing does not work. The profit will need to be there.
Real Life not low life!
Nov 21, 2013 4:19PM
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I bought a new vehicle in March.  The salesman used every dirty trick in the book to keep me on the lot.  After much research, I had walked in with a price in mind for my trade and a firm price I was willing to pay for the car and did not budge a cent.  After test driving the car I liked we haggled for 3 hours before I got up and walked out.  I never once deviated from the numbers I had in my head.  When I got home I found the car I test drove on the internet and sent an email to every dealership within 30 miles specifying the VIN number and my terms.  Out of 20 dealership, 3 responded to my letter within an hour.  One immediately offered me the deal I specified.  They pulled the car off of the lot I had test driven it at. I walked in gave them the keys to my trade in, wrote a check and was driving away within an hour.
Nov 21, 2013 4:37PM
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Taking away the salespeople's commission is wrong. Circuit City did the same thing with their television sales department and look what happened...
Nov 21, 2013 4:15PM
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I just bought a new car this last week.  I found the dealer I wanted to use online and saw what was listed for sale and then there were a few that said "EMAIL Me for a Special Price"  I did and was given a price for what I wanted at almost $3,000.00 less than the advertised price.  Went to the dealer and met with the internet manager who did the whole deal.  No messing around with a salesman, no haggling over price!  Done Deal!
Nov 21, 2013 6:00PM
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If you go "car shopping" you get what you give! I have been in the business for 25+ years and have seen it all. If you think salespeople are going away GOOD LUCK. Vehicles today are more technical then ever. I've had people come in, and say they got their car cheaper than my best price. Then turn around and ask how something works on their car, or can they get a loaner when they bring their vehicle in for service. REALLY, get a clue!! My people are trained to help get the best vehicle for the person, not the dealership. Customer service is what makes a dealership successful!! If a consumer  doesn't want to pay for good service that's OK. A good relationship with your salesperson, will help many times over. Be truthful and so will your salesperson, you need to lie please go somewhere else.

 At least that's how it goes here. Long live the salesperson!!

Nov 22, 2013 12:08AM
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Having been in the automobile retail business for over 20 years I couldn't agree more with the general concensus that we should change the process of negotiating on the price of our product.  I believe that EVERY person should pay the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price on all new vehicles.  No haggling- same fair price for everyone!  Just like every other place that sells goods and/or services.  The general public can sleep at night knowing that "Bob" who lives down at the end of the block didn't pay less than them.  Car salespeople can no longer be called crooks for being a part of an industry that actually allows people to get a better price on the vehicle than is suggested by the manufacturer.  But let there be no mistake- there will always be a need for the salesperson to sell the features and benefits of the product that they sell.  The only difference will be that people will no longer be burdened with the terrible notion that they can better their deal through negotiating - EVERYBODY will just pay full price.  Just like Wal Mart.  I say let's all stop talking about it and make it happen!
Nov 21, 2013 4:11PM
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They aren't going away. I was looking to purchase a luxury car last year and every "internet sales" rep told me they would not negotiate over the internet. Every one of them used the "it wouldn't be fair to you or me" excuse.

 

We all know the real truth.......

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