Not many people know “the dealership experience” quite as well as Mike Quincy. Over the past 14 years, he’s purchased more than 100 new cars, each equipped to his individual specifications, from dealers representing virtually every manufacturer.
Quincy, you see, is a buyer of new cars for Consumer Reports’ (CR) testing program.
Once the test engineers decide which vehicles they want and how they should be equipped, Quincy procures them, much the way you and I do.
“I go on the web and configure the car the way we want it, then send the information off to a bunch of dealers while I work on other projects,” Quincy explains. “Slowly, the email chimes tell me I’m getting responses.”
The email address he uses for these inquiries is a personal (non-Consumer Reports) one. “We keep our identity quiet until the last second, on the day we take delivery,” he says. “That’s when the dealership learns that this is going to be a test car and registered to Consumers Union. It’s neat watching the reactions. Sometimes the salesman gets nervous thinking we’re judging the dealership.”
CR generally buys its cars through dealerships surrounding its East Haddam, Connecticut, test facility, 21 miles east of Hartford on the site of the former Connecticut Dragway. Quincy keeps a spreadsheet of the dealerships he’s used and tries not to use the same one a second time in a six-month period.
However, even when he has to, he rarely is recognized. “The turnover in some dealerships is so high that 90 percent of the people are different when I go back,” he says.
“I’m always amazed at how many times there’s no response to my inquiry or there’s an initial response but no follow-up. The conversation just stops because the sales person has left and no one picked up the file.
“There also are times I’ve left a deposit and two or three weeks go by with no word, only to learn my contact has left. It’s tough to run a retail store when the turnover rate is so high. How can you have a hotter lead than a customer’s deposit in hand?”
The opposite is true, too. When sales go smoothly, alert sales managers and dealership general managers seek to acquire CR’s ongoing business.
“It would make life easier,” says Quincy, “but we don’t want the manufacturers to know that we’re the customer. If they did, we could wind up with a car especially made for us. We want a random sample of a mass-produced product.”
Sometimes Quincy has to travel to acquire just the right car.
“When Scion was introduced, California got the first cars, so I flew out to buy a couple and have them shipped to Connecticut,” he says. Likewise, when the test team wanted a rear-wheel-drive Infiniti, he found the right car in North Carolina. All the inventory in New England was solely all-wheel-drive.
Maserati made a big splash by introducing its new “affordable” Ghibli during the Super Bowl. However, Quincy already had been on the case, finding and buying one in Warwick, RI.
CR has its own pricing and car-buying guides; so do national websites such as Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com) and Edmunds.com.
For us lay shoppers, Quincy’s advice is to “find the figure near to what the dealer paid for the car and negotiate up from that rather than down from the sticker price.”
“They know that a customer who has spent money and effort on research is serious and looking to buy,” he says. “It’s the opposite of the customer who comes in, takes up an hour or two of time, then goes across the street and buys a car.”
CR keeps its cars for a quite a while. The first stop is their garage to make sure all the fluids and equipment are correct, then the cars go out on the road for several thousand miles of shakedown driving before they start going through CR’s more than 50 instrument tests on the track.
“After our review is published, we keep the car for another four to six months and post follow-up items on our blog,” says Quincy. “It also enables us to show any faults we find to the manufacturer’s engineers if they question our findings.”
After that, CR offers the cars for sale to its employees. “We buy 80 to 90 new cars every year,” says Quincy. “There are 450 people in the company-wide pool eligible to buy them.”
Most are sold that way. The others often are traded in. “If we had a Lexus, for example, we’d have no problems trading it in for a Mercedes-Benz or another like-priced vehicle,” he says.
Which brings Quincy to another guideline: A trade-in is a different transaction from a new-car purchase.
“Keep the transactions separate,” he advises. “You’re making two separate deals. Of course, it’s going to take a while. One of a dealership’s tactics is to keep you waiting and tire you out.”
Quincy takes note of dealers who are really good and follow up on inquiries.
“The best transactions are drama free,” he says. “Later, I tell those dealerships they got the sale because they hustled and followed up the lead we sent them.”
Delivery day often is the first time Quincy sets foot in the dealership and the time he might get the sales pitch “for the stuff you don’t need”—rust-proofing, VIN-etching, paint sealant, fabric protection, extended warranties.
“Most dealers pass on that with me,” he says, “because they know I’m going to say no.”
But one high-end dealership gave Quincy the hard-sell anyway. He stood up and started to walk out. “When the GM asked what was wrong, I told him, ‘This is why people hate to buy cars,’” he says.
In the end, though, Quincy is like all of us when he drives off the lot in a new car.
“I still get a little thrill picking it up and driving it home. It’s a special thing for me,” he says.