Showroom Scruples

AUTOMOBILE showrooms have traditionally been a male domain, featuring a masculine decor and a mostly male sales staff. New research confirms this impression. A study commissioned by the American Bar Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Chicago, indicates this environment favors white male customers, giving them an edge over women and blacks in negotiating prices. Researchers posing as middle-class, college-educated buyers between the ages of 24 and 28 made more than 550 visits to Chicago-area dealerships. Salespeople gave white men in the group final offers averaging about $11,362 on a new car with a sticker price of $13,465, and a dealer's cost of about $11,000.

White women were quoted an average price of about $11,504 - a markup 40 percent higher than the price offered to white men. For black men, the average price was $11,783, more than double the markup for white men. Faring worst of all were black women, who were given an average price of $12,237 - three times the markup for white men.

Norman Ayres, an associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law and author of the study, calls these selling techniques a ``search for suckers.'' By making a higher profit on some sales - those to women and blacks, for instance - dealers can offset lower profits on others, such as those to white men.

Mr. Ayres cautions that these discrepancies may not be a matter of outright discrimination or bigotry. Rather, they may simply reflect dealers' perceptions that women and minorities are less informed or skilled at bargaining.

The National Automobile Dealers Association says it plans to begin a sales certification program next year, including courses on contract law, ethics, and the psychology of selling.

American automobile manufacturers are working to become competitive again at state-of-the-art engineering. Automobile dealers should work equally hard to catch up with state-of-the-ethics standards set by society in opposing discrimination in housing and employment.

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