7. Bargaining and Gender
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c h a p t e r s e v e n Bargaining and Gender For customers, buying a car evokes strong feelings, not only because they are spending a lot of money but also because they have to engage in the process variously known as trading, dealing, negotiating, bargaining, haggling, and dickering . The practice is both unfamiliar and fraught with symbolic meaning, which is why it is frequently described with metaphorical labels like hunt, battle, contest , and game. Both men and women say they dislike negotiating, but men understand it as part of the meaning of owning the car. An Atlanta Cadillac dealer explained that his poor male customers who realized they were being tricked into paying more than they could afford did not “even have sense enough to walk out.” By that time, he said, “the guy is so ashamed he buys it anyway and then lies in the street. He tells everybody he paid this real low price because he doesn’t want to admit he got taken.”1 Getting cheated on a car purchase and losing “street cred” is a direct carryover of horse trading patterns into the new transportation market. The buyer lost status by paying too much; the seller gained status by charging too much. Early Ford dealer John Eagal took horses in trade for his Model Ts in 1909. He had a hostler on staff who not only knew how to polish up an old horse to make it look new but was also a first-class bargainer.2 Eagal was conflicted about bringing horse-trading techniques over to the car side of the business. On the one hand, he said he never cut list prices, but on the other, he admitted he would give over-allowances to close a sale. The willingness to sweeten the deal by upping the allowance on a trade-in permitted customers to walk away thinking they had beaten the dealer and done better than their acquaintances. If you want to impress your friends, “talk prices,” suggested a piece in 1915. Tell them “by knowing the ropes and working one dealer against another you got a big shave.”3 “The Great American Sport of Bargaining” Consumers and dealers believed, and numerous field studies have confirmed, that buyers who bargain pay less than those who do not.4 For male customers, the opportunity to boast about a good price may have been as important as the money. “All men like to be called ‘shrewd,’” a Ford sales manual advised in 1926.5 Shrewd meant getting a better price than expected, a better price than friends, a better price than the dealer wanted to charge. Beating the dealer gave the buyer bragging rights.6 It did not matter if the buyer won the concession on the price of the new car or the allowance on the old one, just as long as there was the appearance of victory. “If John Smith can get 5 per cent reduction, he is pleased, not merely because he saved $100 but because he beat the game,” reported an industry study in 1932: “The chief satisfaction that he gets from the reduction is when he whispers to Henry Jones, his neighbor, that he was clever enough to get 5 per cent off.”7 Dealers understood that customers perceived car buying as a contest and cultivated devices to make them think they had beaten the house. “You have to make the customer feel that he has won a victory,” said a Chevrolet salesman in 1979.8 “It is a cardinal sin to give the prospect an unearned concession,” advised a sales manual a dozen years earlier. “He will value it little unless he feels he has earned it. Give him the satisfaction he seeks. Let him earn the savings he wants to brag about.”9 Salesmen would bolster the egos of even weak negotiators by telling them they were tough customers who were beating them up, or getting them in trouble with their managers. The managers would use similar language, joking about how the customer was stealing the car or was out to ruin the salesman ’s reputation.10 The need to make the buyer feel like a winner was one of the incentives for price packing. By inflating the cost of the new car, the dealers could give overBargaining and Gender 139 allowances on the trade-in, making the buyer believe he was a shrewd bargainer. In 1939, a West Coast dealer...


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