Ethical Dilemma Fail at the Car Dealership

For a variety reasons, the time has come to get rid of our trusty Volvo V70R station wagon and pick up something smaller for my wife’s primary vehicle.  We love the strong 300 HP engine, but the turning radius makes the Queen Mary look nimble.  With only one teenager left in the house, there’s little need for the larger vehicle and we were interested in something smaller and greener.  With no particular hurry to make the transition, I took a couple of pictures of the car and posted a short blurb on an enthusiast website (who knew there was a dedicated website for owners of overpowered Volvo wagons).  Within 24 hours, we had a buyer lined up.  Thus, we had a few days to decide on a replacement vehicle and arrange a purchase.

We test drove a few options and quickly settled on a 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid.  It was love at first test drive.  The challenge was on to find the right mix of options for the “right” price.  I have this love-hate reaction to buying cars.  I don’t shy away from negotiating and don’t feel particularly intimidated by salespeople, their managers, or their finance people.  Information and the ability to walk away are the two biggest defenses to a bad car deal.  That said, I find most of those folks to be obnoxious with varying levels of deceitfulness.  Not the sort that I generally want to spend a lot time hanging with.

The San Francisco Bay Area is lousy with Honda dealerships so I didn’t anticipate a problem, particularly given the sorry state of the economy.  The car we wanted, however, was not typical:  fully loaded with electronic gadgetry (navigation, USB audio, bluetooth, etc.) but no leather and no moonroof.  As for color we were pretty flexible, I thought:  anything but white.

The first dealership had only white.  The second could not get their act together and failed to follow up.  On a whim while running errands, I dropped in on third dealership who handled it just right.  I told them exactly what I wanted and exactly what I was willing to pay (just look at http://www.edmunds.com and http://www.carsdirect.com and don’t accept a higher price, all-in).  They found the exact car we wanted at another dealership and we had the deal done in 20 minutes.

While waiting for the paperwork, however, I had about a half-hour wait and faced an ethical dilemma that, in retrospect, I failed.  Miserably.  At the little work table next to me, a very sweet middle aged couple were finishing a deal on a new minivan.  The salesperson was a very attractive young woman who was really working both of her clients on the “value-added extras.”  I was really surprised in that I thought that in this age of the Internet, particularly in the Silicon Valley, the high-pressure rip-off car sales techniques have become a thing of the past.  Apparently not.

While I was struggling over whether to intervene and say something, the salesperson managed to sell them on both clearcoat rust protection and scotchguard fabric protection.  Faced with some initial pushback on the original $1200 cost for these options, the salesperson even used the “I’ll see what my manager can do for you” tactic, coming back with hundreds of dollars off.

I should have said something.  This stuff is totally unnecessary and just a complete rip-off.  Two cans of scotchguard cost $10 at the local hardware store.  New cars do not rust — hence the lengthy factory warranty on rust.  Also, we live in California, not Detroit.  The lack of weather and salt on the roads provides the best insurance against debilitating rust problems.  Anyway, I should have said something and saved the nice couple some of their hard-earned cash, but I didn’t.  I should have walked out on my own deal and found yet another dealer or used carsdirect.com, but I didn’t.

Instead, I thought about caveat emptor, liability for interference with economic advantage (a rarely used tort under California law), and the hassle of starting all over again with another dealer when I needed a new car by Wednesday.  Ugh.  Car dealers are scum and I’m a wimp.

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