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A letter to the automobile dealers of America

(Page 2 of 2)

Months passed. The stack of glossy brochures handed to me in each showroom grew. So did the pile of business cards. So did my frustration. More than once I was tempted to end my search and keep my 11-year-old car. The choices seemed overwhelming, and so did the prices.

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Speaking of cost: Somewhere there must be buyers who relish the prospect of haggling. I am not one of them. I dislike being told, as one salesman put it, ``You come back when you're ready to buy and we'll cut you a really nice deal.''

Fortunately, my story has a happy ending. During a visit to my hometown, Rockford, Ill., I met Alice Dean, a veteran of 11 years as an automobile saleswoman.

Ms. Dean opened the hood and showed me the engine - something only a few salesmen had bothered to do. She pointed out special features. She answered my questions without making me feel dumb. She understood my concerns about price. She was enthusiastic but not overbearing, persuasive but not pushy. Best of all, she and her sales manager ``cut me a really nice deal'' (without ever using that awful phrase), thus making it worth my while to buy the car in Illinois and drive it to Massachusetts.

It's obvious that women constitute a growing part of the market. In June, Vogue magazine carried 20 pages of automobile ads. At a cost of $24,000 for a color page, this represents a serious attempt to woo female buyers. In addition, a 1985 study found that women were the ``primary decisionmakers'' in 55 percent of new-car purchases and were ``substantially involved'' in 85 percent of all car-buying decisions.

Why, then, can't we get a warmer welcome in showrooms? The neglectful automobile salesman can neglect men as well as women - and does. But my experience tells me that women tend to be neglected in certain ways men are not - and neglected more. As customers, we pay the same price, but we're not quite equal yet.

What do women want? Simple - the same treatment men long for: a salesperson, male or female, who greets us sincerely and acts eager for our business - without being overbearing or aggressive. A salesperson who doesn't insult our intelligence. We may not understand the fine points of dual-overhead-cam Quad 4 engines or multiport fuel injection (many men probably don't, either), but that doesn't mean we're interested only in a roomy glove compartment and ``pretty'' upholstery. We aren't motorheads, but neither are we dunderheads.

Dear once-and-future dealers, by the time I'm ready to buy my next car, I hope you'll follow the lead of many California dealers and employ more women - saleswomen like Alice Dean who can close a deal with the best of their male colleagues, but who remain sensitive to the needs of customers.

In the meantime, why not encourage your salesmen to pay more attention to us? You never know. Some of us just might turn out to be what you call a ``live one'' - a customer who is eager to buy and can pull a check from her handbag to seal the really nice deal you offer her.