Sunday, August 31, 2014
A Summer Day at the Car Dealer
We’ve heard a thousand times how those crafty car guys love to upsell repairs. The car clunks, we go into the shop (Firestone, Midas Muffler, the dealership) with short hairs raised and ready to strike down any "extras" the guy with grease under his fingernails suggests. It’s all a rip off, we’re sure of it. And the continuation of their franchise is dependent on hooking us for a coolant flush. Is the existence of these snake-oil guys actually true? The truth is like Teri Hatcher’s you-know-whats on SEINFELD: they're real and they're spectacular. Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQNkeugaAMc
Last Thursday my wife found a piece of plastic hanging off her car’s undercarriage. The car is eight years old and has 125,000 miles on it. She’s already put $2,500 into it this summer, so the hanging plastic was an unwelcome sight. We took it to Firestone. They removed the part and said a replacement was required. But only “the dealer” could do the job. Next stop: the dealer. Yikes. I called the Mazda store, got the service guy on the line. Yep, he had the part. Yep, he could do the job. I didn’t even finish describing the problem and he was 100% sure they’d have it fixed in a jiff. He even quoted me: $220. Just get down here. Just come now. We set an appointment for Friday. We’d be there.
Maybe the first mistake I made was letting my wife go alone. It was a Friday afternoon and the place would be mobbed with before-the-weekend service customers. I knew that. That's how they work. But we had a quote. She’d be in and out in a half hour. The service guy said so. She showed up at 1PM and didn’t get checked in till 1:45. Off to a slow start, no biggie. Once they printed that service report and the jockey drove the car inside the double-bayed garage, they had her right where they wanted her. She was inside. She was in their clutches. Game on.
The next two hours were spent in the waiting room: bad coffee and talk-show TV. They promised the job would take a half hour. They promised they had the part in-stock. But I kept getting her texts, “still waiting,” then again, “still waiting,” then “what the f%$#!” Looking back, I think she was left to wait two hours because they were picking up her part at another dealership. They got her inside by saying they had the part in-stock. Getting her there was the key. And when they saw they had a young woman holding a Gillian Flynn novel, who surely didn’t know a spark plug from a starter, they went to work. When my wife went to check on the job at 3:35, the service manager said they hadn’t gotten to her car yet. She was sent back to the waiting room.
While waiting, she described to me the dealership hustle and bustle: the wall of offices, the big boss in his tweed coat walking through, the receptionist paging phone calls nonstop. And somewhere in the bowels of that service building out back her car was hidden. This is what it means to be at the dealer. When that door closes behind you, they have you, and they hold you in. When she got fed up and demanded her car back, they said it had suddenly been taken apart and if she wanted it back they’d have to charge an hour of labor to put it back together still broken. Her choice was pay $110.00 and the two hours she’d lost waiting for NOTHING, or keep waiting and get it fixed right. No brainer and they know that. The car hadn't been touched. I guarantee it.
When the service manager finally called her inside, he had an entirely different story. Gone was the $220.00 quote from the phone call. Now my wife needed two additional parts that were required to be installed with her original part. What are these magical new parts? What was their purpose? Jargon-jargon-jargon, say a lot of car-sounding things a woman wouldn’t understand, new quote: $550.00. He was sorry about the new quote but he wasn’t aware of the job’s total scope. He'd have it done in fifteen minutes though! Love how they adjust those repair times to fit the situation. She told him she needed to contact her husband (me) and would be back in ten minutes with a decision.
My wife called me with the new quote and I told her enough was enough. I said tell the service manager you want to file an insurance claim and have the job done at the garage our carrier uses. She took this message to the service manager and he told her she was too late. They’d already gone ahead on the job. See, she’d said ten minutes and didn’t get back to him for fifteen minutes. He saw that time lapse as her concession for the work and pulled the trigger. She couldn’t get to him because he’d left his service post and didn’t come back for fifteen minutes.
In the end, she handed the cashier her credit card and there goes $550.00, a devastating blow in late August for people like us. We’ve had a lot of crappy expenses this summer, but this one hurt bad-bad. And I’m not angry at the Mazda dealership. I’m kind of in awe. We all think the rip off happens when some lug tries pitching you a coolant flush and you smartly say no thanks, and ta-da you beat the system. The truth is so much realer and so much more spectacular than that. It’s a multi-level system that starts when the garage door closes and ends at the cashier’s office, and nobody stands a chance.
This is their game and it's evolved famously. The bigger they are the better they are. My wife with her master’s degree and Gillian Flynn book got taken behind the woodshed. And maybe it would've gone better if I'd been there. Maybe me and my Harlan Coben novel would've struck fear in them. But somehow I doubt it. We're all the dumb widow at a car dealership.
On the way out of the dealership, my wife was talking to me on the phone, practically crying about the all-afternoon beat down she’d just received. She told me there was a vending machine by the door that had unsalted peanuts, and she was sooooo hungry. When she told me she was grabbing a dollar to slide in the machine, I told her NNNOOOO!!! I’ve seen that episode of SEINFELD too. Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks3oItDhr_E