Why Car Dealers Steer You Away From the Web

High-pressure sales tactics still work. Here's how to resist them.

By + More

You can buy books, music, TVs, groceries, and just about everything else on the Web these days. Surely all those automotive websites make it easy to buy a car, too. Right?

Not so fast. It turns out that car dealers—who control nearly all new-car purchases—don't really want you to buy cars over the Web. I learned this recently when a friend tried to lease a new crossover. With a busy job and two kids, she's got plenty to worry about besides car shopping and simply wanted a comfortable vehicle at a good price—with no hassle at the dealership. Since I write frequently about cars, I offered to help. Piece of cake, I assured her. Just do it all over the Web.

Every automaker has a website that allows shoppers to configure the car they want, price it out, and, theoretically, get a quote from a local dealer. My friend's target car was a Toyota Highlander. She did as I instructed, identifying the exact trim line and E-mailing requests through kbb.com and a couple of dealer websites. But no quotes arrived. Instead, she got phone calls from a couple of salespeople. "Come on in, and we'll talk about it," they urged.

She didn't want to come in and talk. She just wanted to compare prices, go with the best deal, sign the papers, and drive off to the next demanding thing on her schedule.

She must have been doing something wrong, I explained. I reiterated that she had to ask for the Internet sales department, where the mellow, new-age salespeople reside, not the regular high-octane sales force. She did—and got more calls urging her to come in for a chat.

I offered to take over and took a systematic approach. I solicited quotes from eight dealers, on four top crossovers: two more on the Highlander, plus two each on the Saturn Outlook, Mazda CX-9, and Subaru Tribeca—all by E-mail.

I spelled out which options I wanted, asked for quotes by E-mail, and made clear I wasn't interested in "coming in for a chat." I wanted quotes on real vehicles actually in stock, with a vehicle identification number—a VIN—included for verification. I needed the car fast and would take the best offer, closing the deal within a week. But if any unstated fees or other surprises materialized, I'd walk.

With car sales down sharply this year, I figured the offers would pour in from dealers desperate for action. But I got just two responses—from Saturn and Subaru. After a bit of back-and-forth with the Subaru guy, I had a quote and all the necessary info on a snazzy seven-passenger Tribeca. From the others—nothing. My dalliance with Saturn never developed into an actual quote. Mazda never even bothered to respond, and between my friend and me, we got just one quote from four Toyota dealers—and that, too late.

Within a week, my friend leased the Tribeca—giving her business to the one salesperson who negotiated her way and stuck by his offer.

This little trial was unscientific, but it's enough to reveal that car dealers still have not embraced the Internet. "That's a very typical experience," says Jack Nerad of kbb.com. "They use the Internet as a come-on but still want to deal with you in person, so they can maximize profits." If you'd rather find a no-hassle deal on the Web than tussle with dealers the old-fashioned way, here are some of the lessons my friend and I learned:

Consider more than one model. Car shoppers tend to fixate on one car and stick with it. But there may be only one or two nearby dealerships that sell that car, and if the dealers aren't Web friendly, then it's their way or the highway. And if you're going after a hot model, you'll have less leverage no matter what. Expanding your search to include several competing models will raise the odds of finding a dealer willing to do it your way. If you don't know which other cars might meet your needs, sites like kbb.com, Edmunds.com, Consumer Reports, and the U.S. News car rankings often recommend vehicles comparable to the one you're primarily interested in.

Identify the precise car you want. That includes which trim line you're looking for, along with all options. Automaker websites make this easy. Most have a "build and price" function that allows you to configure the car exactly as you want. As you go through the process, note all your choices, along with the final MSRP. On most cars, a dealer's quote should be lower. And keep in mind, you can't order every feature a la carte; often you have to order an entire package of features to get a sunroof, heated seats, or navigation system. It's helpful to know that in advance.

Learn a bit of dealerspeak. The jargon might seem unfamiliar, but if you learn some car lingo you'll be treated more seriously. For instance, don't ask for a price quote on a Highlander, "you know, the one with the big, shiny wheels and the heated mirrors." Do enough research to know that you're really asking about the Highlander Sport model with the cold-weather package. It'll show you've done your homework and make it easier for a salesperson to provide an exact quote.

Negotiate by E-mail. Obviously, you can test-drive cars only at the dealership, but once you've settled on one or two you want, negotiate from your own desk, at home. The slower back-and-forth of E-mail removes some of the pressure—which is why dealers don't like to do it. You can take time to think before responding, or even walk away, without feeling rude. Oh, when you're at the dealership for a test drive, expect to hear about special deals that expire the moment you walk out the door. Don't believe it. With vehicle sales down about 8 percent so far this year, that deal will be back before you know it—and maybe even get better.

Stick to your guns. If you really want to avoid negotiating at the dealership, tell the salesperson upfront, by phone or E-mail. Salespeople will test you, insisting that it's important to meet. But usually, the only reason you have to show up at the dealership is to sign the paperwork. If the salesperson doesn't see it that way, find another one.

Don't blame the automakers. They don't own the car dealerships; they only sell them cars at the wholesale level, the way Levi's supplies jeans to department stores. In fact, the car companies often have their own complaints about the way dealers treat customers—though they tend to shy away from battles with their front-line retailers. For car buyers, that means that Chevrolet or Toyota corporate HQ can't do much to help you get a fair deal on the car you want. So try another dealer—or stick with your aging ride a bit longer.