April 21, 2009 -- For many female shoppers, buying a car can be a terrifying experience.
They might be savvy businesswomen, great negotiators and smart with their money, but for some reason when they walk through those showroom doors a chill runs down their spines.
Duane Overholt, who worked for more than two decades at car dealerships in Pennsylvania and Florida, can attest to the travails that many women face when buying a car.
"Women are preyed upon. They are easy targets," said Overholt, who now works as an automobile fraud consultant.
Overholt said predatory dealers use all sorts of scare tactics to squeeze more money out of female customers. The message generally is: you don't know anything about cars, trust us.
Women are less likely to be ripped off on price than in the past because of Internet and other resources available to learn the true cost of veheicles, he said.
But too often, he said, women get suckered into buying extras, like an extended warranty or gap insurance, which is meant to pay the difference between the actual cash value your car and the outstanding balance on your loan or lease. He said dealers will also play games with the value of trade-in vehicles.
Car Dealer Scams
Even long after a sale is made, the dealer will still target women for more cash. That usually happens in the service department where the message is: "You've got to get this service done and the best way to get it done is with experienced technicians, when the consumer can actually get those same services probably outside the dealership much cheaper," Overholt said.
He said some dealers will exploit women's fears about safety. There might be a superficial cut on a tire and they will play it like a major safety problem that must be resolved.
"Most men will throw the dice," he said. "Most women won't." The same can be said about brakes -- women are more likely to replace parts that men would take a chance on.
"Dealers right now are making the money on service -- they aren't making it on sales," Overholt added.
Partly in response to the trouble women have with car dealers, more services have cropped up to help them cope.
One new Web site, women-drivers.com, is aiming to level the playing field, offering reviews of dealerships from the female perspective and certifying some businesses as "women-friendly."
Anne Fleming founded the site after her own experiences shopping for a car.
The former senior marketing director at a decorative lighting company was used to negotiating every day in business. But when it came time for her to buy a car, "I wanted no part of it," Fleming said.
So for $200 she hired a car negotiator who helped her save about $700 on a used BMW 325xi.
"Professionally I would negotiate the button off your shirt to get that get to the gross margin that I needed for my company," Fleming said. "But yet when it came to buying a car, I actually hired someone to do all that for me."
The absurdity of that really hit her one day when having lunch with her boss. After telling him about buying the new car, he said: "You manage a $30 million account, you travel the world by yourself, why did you give your power away?"
Then she read the book "Women Don't Ask" by Carnegie Mellon University professor Linda Babcock.
Reading the book, she learned that two out of 10 women negotiate their first year's compensation compared with seven out of ten men. Then she read that women typically pay $1,300 more for a car than men.
That made her focus on her own car-buying experiences and spawned the Web site.
Fleming is trying to give women a tool to fight back.
The idea behind women-drivers.com is to connect women with the car dealers that have the best customer service experiences.
Women are encouraged to rate dealerships they visit. They rank -- on a sale of 1 to 5 -- the dealers on the browsing experience, the purchase process and the service department.
"We are up to transforming the dealership experience for consumers," Fleming said adding that now 70 percent of women go to the dealership with someone and 90 percent of those that they go with are men. The overwhelming majority of salesman also happen to be men.
Once a dealer has at least three reviews on the site, it gets ranked in the global directory. There are 19,000 dealerships nationally included on the site, but most of those surveyed now are in the Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas. Fleming plans to launch a nationwide marketing campaign at the end of the spring.
The site makes money through ad sales and by selling more-details customer survey information back to the dealers reviewed.
Elda Sullivan owns the currently highest-rated dealership, Sullivan Chevrolet in Pittsburgh.
"We're absolutely delighted," she said. "It's all about taking good care of your customers."
Her dealership has been in the family since 1949. As part of her sales training, all of her staff is reminded to talk to both people – the man and the woman – in front of them. The other key: not talking down to anybody about service.
"I think we give them the respect they deserve. We work on treating everybody equally, training the salespeople to do all the right things," Sullivan said.
Some women, she said, "know as much, if not more, than men about services."
Sullivan likes the idea of the women-friendly ratings, saying there are a lot of women who have had a lot bad experiences.
"You hear so many horror stories," she said. "It makes you very concerned about going to a place."
Most of her past experiences at car dealers can be summed up this way: "If there's two of you there, they don't want to talk to the woman."
But after her positive experience buying the Chevy one-ton pickup named Big Bertha -- "She pulls a 6-hourse trailer like there's no tomorrow … She's the best" -- Gooderl decided to review the dealer.
"It's nice," she said, "to know that there's a site out there that can direct you to a woman-friendly dealer."