Car dealerships: a rant

It may sound obvious, but motoring journalists are a lucky bunch. As well as the obvious benefits (driving nice cars etc) we can also pick up the phone to a (usually) helpful press office if there’s something we want to know about a car and its performance or sales figures. ┬áPeople who want to actually buy a car aren’t so fortunate.

Thanks to the Internet, things have changed a lot over the last few years. Statistics have shown that car buyers do a lot more research these days and tend to settle on a shortlist of cars they want to test, rather than spend several weekends wandering aimlessly around car dealers with a copy of their favourite car magazine under their arm. Some buyers choose to deal with an online broker, but the vast majority still prefer to visit a dealership (albeit firmly clutching the results of their research).

This, in my recent experience, is where things start to go downhill. I’m currently in the very early stages of changing my car and, having a family, I’ve narrowed my shortlist down to a small SUV or an estate. Since I cover around 20,000 miles each year, I want to either buy or lease something new and I know from the Web what’s on offer and roughly what I should be paying. The process should therefore be pretty straightforward, right? Not so much….

I contacted the first dealer via a manufacturer advert that popped up on my Facebook account. I filled in a form and waited a few days for the local dealer to make contact, but the salesman’s product knowledge when he did eventually call left a lot to be desired. I was told they didn’t have a demonstrator of the model I was after and they would call me if one became available and that, I thought, was it. A few days later, I received one of those ‘How did we do?’ emails and I filled it in truthfully (‘Would you recommend us to a friend?’, for example. ‘No’, I replied). To my amazement, I then received a call from the salesman complaining my reply had earned him a telling-off from the sales manager. That quickly escalated to the manufacturer’s Customer Services department and I duly received an apology but, needless to say, I won’t be buying from that particular dealership.

Next came a test drive of a different manufacturers’ product. Again, the salesperson’s product knowledge wasn’t great – something that hardly inspires confidence – but when they referred to a passing classic vehicle (probably of 1970s vintage) by its latest product name, that was enough for me to decide they wouldn’t be getting my cash.

A third dealer admitted they couldn’t match the price being offered by a rival dealer in another part of the country (ain’t the Internet wonderful?) and so didn’t even email me the promised quote. Then, on making contact with the ‘far away’ dealership, they couldn’t be bothered to return several phone calls. It was the same story when I contacted yet another dealer at the other end of the country. Yet more crosses on the rapidly-shrinking list.

So, after over a month of shopping for a new car, I’m no closer to signing on anyone’s dotted line. The list of cars still exists, but I’ve yet to find a dealer that seems to want my money – and that’s a problem that many manufacturers either seem reluctant to tackle or don’t even realise exists.

The vast majority of buyers only ever have contact with a dealer, not the maker or importer. Good dealers rarely make the headlines; my wife has bought her last two cars from a family-run Fiat dealership in west Wales and can’t speak highly enough of them, but my recent experiences of several dealerships close to where I live (and the pair at opposite ends of the country) have been anything but positive. Car manufacturers spend millions on developing and marketing their products, but the most important link in the chain between factory and buyer seems extremely variable in quality.

My search for a new car goes on. Hopefully there’s a dealer out there that actually wants to do business but I’m not that sure….

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