Car Buying Is So Personal

April 18, 2010

In another life I worked for a consumer finance company. It was my first job out of college. For some reason the director of marketing sort of cornered me, a management trainee, and started talking out of the box at a time when the expression didn’t even exist. This was 1969 and I guess it was the end of the Mad Men era of advertising.

What he said to me that day was that when consumers were financing their new clothes washer they really weren’t buying a machine; they were buying 36 months of clean clothes. Back then I was too dumb to understand what he meant, besides how would you ever monetize (there’s another term that didn’t exist) that.

But isn’t that what buying a car or truck is all about? We’re not that much interested in what we’re physically purchasing, but how the acquisition adds to our emotional bottom line. Otherwise why would SUVs have been so popular when only about 15 percent of all owners indicate that they ever used their vehicles off road? Or why does the top speedometer range of an Audi A4 go up to 180 mph when the specs on the vehicle indicate a top attainable speed of 155 mph?

After years of getting in ten to fifteen different cars a day I’m pretty jaded about the sizzle in my steak when it comes to transportation. It’s a shame to say it but cars hold very little intrigue for me. That’s pretty bad for someone that drove a car 125 mph at the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Orlando. But even for me the car purchase experience transcends the concrete and tangible to a place where personal priorities push themselves to the front of the prefrontal cortex.

Of course, car salesmen know this and even though their initial question--What are you looking for?--may seem quite innocent and functional, to answer it, is to lose the battle in the opening foray. But that is a subject for a different time. So what was it that dominated my decision making the last time I walked onto a lot? You may want to tune out right now because it is incredibly boring.

The new car market was hotter than beach sand in August. The dealers were energized and incentives had turned it into a buyer’s market and I was looking for a deal on small SUV that got high mpg and offered a long new car warranty. This would replace a Chevy S-10 Blazer with a coolant leak that I had been nursing for nine months. After an extended dance with the car salesman my needs were met and it felt good that my trips down I-95 could now be taken without a reserve supply of anti-freeze/coolant.

How about you, what altered state are you in when you walk onto a car lot? What buttons will the skilled new car sales facilitator be looking to push when he shakes your hand and gazes into your prefrontal cortex?

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