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A letter to the automobile dealers of America

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1988


I'VE just spent more months than I'd care to count shopping for a new car, and I'd like to offer a suggestion to any dealers listening. Give your sales professionals, as you like to call them, a quick course in a very basic subject - Selling Cars to Women. On the surface, this gender-oriented instruction shouldn't be necessary. Both men and women, after all, want pretty much the same services when they buy a car: a knowledgeable salesperson, courteous treatment, and the fairest price possible. But based on my own experience - visiting nearly 20 dealers in three states - and the experience of other women I know, too many salesmen (alas, I've met only two saleswomen) still don't take female customers seriously enough.

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A little background: In the early weeks of my search, my husband accompanied me to showrooms around Boston. But I quickly noticed an annoying pattern: When I'd ask a salesman a question, he'd often direct his answer to my husband. Color me invisible.

So I started going alone. But that introduced another problem: Many salesmen still seem to view women primarily as wives - subordinate creatures best suited for trying out the passenger seat, checking the lighted vanity mirror, and nodding in approval when their husbands ask, ``Do you like this color, hon?'' When a woman shows up as a customer, these salesmen, however well intentioned they might be, don't quite know how to act. They remind me of maitre d's I've encountered during solo meals on business trips - the ones who look around for a nonexistent male as they ask, ``Will someone be joining you, madam?''

For the most part an auto showroom is still a hallowed male preserve, not unlike a locker room or a male-only club - definitely alien territory for women. It isn't just the physical surroundings: the linoleum floor, the black-and-chrome chairs in the ``closing rooms,'' the cavernous interior. It's an attitude: part indifference, part condescension, part disbelief that someone in a skirt could deal with something so mechanical and so, well, expensive.

This attitude manifests itself in a variety of ways, some of which apply equally to men. Sometimes I was simply ignored, until finally someone (did they draw straws?) managed to amble over. Other times I was given a perfunctory drill: This is the trunk. This is the tilt steering wheel.

Very few salespeople bothered to make a follow-up telephone call, even though most tried for instant chumminess by using my first name from the start. This is a business relationship, not a friendship. Skip the fake intimacy, please. I'll settle for cordiality.

As I spent evenings and Saturdays trekking around showrooms, I longed for someone to sell me a car - not by using hard-sell tactics, but by displaying interest and enthusiasm. I wanted someone to help me make an informed decision.

There were, of course, occasional bright spots. One salesman, when I explained that I needed a new car, replied heartily, ``We'd love to sell you one!'' Another, when I returned unannounced 13 months after my first visit, immediately remembered not only my occupation but also the exact car - model, color, interior - I had considered. Unfortunately, neither dealer had the right car at the right price, so I kept looking.