Why Are Car Dealerships So Awful?

I hear the same story, with slightly different details, over and over again: My friend went to a dealership and got totally screwed! My mom went to her dealership and was overcharged when all she wanted was a basic service! My buddy went to get a small fix at the dealership and they didn’t even fix the original problem, and now they have a completely new issue! We’ve all heard the horror stories—why are dealerships so consistently awful?

A Game of Monopoly

Simply put, car dealerships have a kind of legally protected monopoly on all new car sales. This is all due to state franchise laws which were lobbied for by dealership owners of days past. Before World War II, you could buy a car through many different avenues, including factory stores, department stores, and even traveling salespeople. Folks who opened up dealerships in those early days argued that this highly competitive market hurt consumer trust in their product because of pricing inconsistencies and product availability. You would think lots of competition would be a good thing considering the “free hand of the market” and other yadda yadda, but turns out capitalists don’t actually care about all that. These first dealership owners debated that the big bad car manufacturers would easily undercut their mom and pop shops if they ever decided to open their own factory store in that area. They also argued that manufacturers could hold these small local franchises hostage by making them buy old, unsold stock now, with the threat of not sending them new models in the future. The dealership owners marketed themselves as independent entrepreneurs; they were pillars of local communities who employed local folks and sold to local consumers. All of these are valid arguments that affected the car-buying public, but we all know how it really turned out.

These days dealerships are highly disconnected from the local neighborhoods they claimed to serve in those early years of car sales. Many have been gobbled up by larger companies that own multiple dealerships across the country, the continent, or even the world. This means whatever profit a dealership makes gets funneled up the ladder, and those dollars are minimally invested back into the local community. Since each dealership comes grandfathered in with their own territory, it’s nearly impossible for them to fail because they have no real viable competition. Even the dealerships that have stayed “independently owned” are mostly passed down through family lines.

The Proletariat

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea: There are some really great individuals who work at dealerships, mostly very talented technicians and service staff. These people are the working class and I wouldn’t confuse them with the corporate muckety-muck owners and greasy politicians who keep these franchise laws in place due to the incredible tax income they get from these minor automotive monopolies. These dealerships might have once started out as independent entrepreneurs, but over time we have seen them become middleman monsters that end up costing the consumer money by marking up a product which the consumer could have obtained cheaper directly from the car manufacturer themselves. The bright side of this is that there has been some minimal disruption of these systems due to the existence of the internet, COVID-19 shipping and production delays, and some new luxury car brands (like Tesla) having direct-to-consumer sales, thereby avoiding the need for any dealerships to get their product to market in the first place. But don’t kid yourself—they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon unless we all stop giving them more and more money, so here’s how to do just that.

Dealing with Dealerships

If you have a new car that you purchased or leased from a dealership, don’t beat yourself up. I would urge you to consider purchasing a used car in the future, assuming you’re set on buying cars for a while. Since you’ve already signed a contract with the dealership, they probably threw in some standard maintenance perks for a set amount of time or mileage on your car. Maybe you even paid for an extended service contract with your vehicle. Before the ink on that paperwork is even dry, the first thing you want to do is ask the salesperson to introduce you to the service front desk staff.

Just like establishing a relationship with your local mechanic, you’ll want to get to know at least one of the front desk staff since you will likely be dealing with them rather than the technician working on your vehicle. If you have a choice, pick someone who looks like you, as they might be easier to connect with. If there is no one who looks like you, try going to another dealership, if that is something that is allowed in your contract. The goal is to find someone you feel you can trust, kind of like finding a therapist. You can also ask the staff, after you’ve gotten to know them, if the turnover is high. Best case scenario, you will be dealing with the same service coordinator the entire length of your warranty or service contract. If you start off this relationship on a good note, the staff will remember you and your vehicle, which will make the experience for both parties infinitely more enjoyable time after time. After all, this is what the early dealership owners lobbied for in the first place: a local hub for car service.

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Lots of times the service should be free. Examples include work that is covered by the manufacturer’s warranty or work related to a recall for a safety issue. Know that for any “free” service the dealership will have to fight the original car manufacturer to get paid for it, and the manufacturer really doesn’t want to do that. If they are not tricking you into getting services you don’t need, they are likely tacking on fees for basics in order to pad their profit margin instead of fighting the car maker on your behalf. These fees could show up on your bill as “shop supplies” which can mean anything from fluids they’ve added, fluids they’ve disposed of, or even shop rags. You can potentially avoid these fees by asking if you will be billed for these shop supplies in advance, asking for an itemized cost estimate before any work has been done, and comparing the estimate with a final itemized bill to check for any extra fees not previously mentioned. Sometimes the service desk staff will be able to lower or remove these fees, but other times not. Either way, it can’t hurt to ask.

Dealerships have front desk staff for precisely this reason. They are there to answer questions so the technicians can do their job and get your car fixed quickly and reliably. That’s their entire job, so never feel like you are wasting their time.

If you have car care imposter syndrome (which I am frequently plagued by more than I care to admit) and you are feeling self-conscious about the amount of car knowledge you have, just lean into it and ask them to explain it to you like they would a kid. If the misogyny vibes are particularly strong, you can play into the dumb girl stereotype to probe them more and catch any inconsistencies in their answers. The amount of power you will feel correcting dealership staff after pretending you don’t know anything is like wearing the Infinity Gauntlet and snapping your fingers to get rid of sexism.

Take Up Space

I want to deeply stress the importance of being a squeaky wheel—especially before any work on your car has been done. If you feel uncomfortable and out of place anywhere near cars, mechanics, and dealerships, it is not an accident. This is partially by design. These spaces are built to be intimidating. Maybe not fully intentionally, but that doesn’t stop salespeople, staff, and technicians from being able to systematically and silently bully you into compliance. A lot of times we are tired and we just want to get out of there and go home, and other times we do not want to look stupid in front of what we’re told are experts. But I urge you to take up space and ask more and more questions every time. The more you ask, the more you will learn and the more confidence you will have to ask more and more questions next time around.

Got questions about your car, truck, SUV, or other engine-powered vehicle?

illustrations by Deanna Larmeu

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