A letter to the automobile dealers of America

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.

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.

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.

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.

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