Classic From The Files: Why Do Car Salesmen Dress Like That?

About a decade ago, Edmunds.com paid journalist Chandler Phillips to get sales jobs at a couple of L.A.-area new car dealerships and then write “Confessions of a Car Salesman” about what he`d learned. I stumbled upon this during the long debate initiated by Malcolm Gladwell when he responded incredulously to Judge Richard Posner and me objecting to his contention in his bestseller Blink about why car salesmen charge blacks and women more. Gladwell contended that car salesman discriminated against blacks and women in price negotiations only because they didn`t realize they were unconsciously discriminating even though it was costing them money. Posner in The New Republic and I in VDARE argued in negative reviews of Blink that car salesmen tend to be jerks who have a pretty good idea of how to weasel more money out of people. 

In defense of Gladwell`s position, you have to admit that car salesmen don`t dress in a manner calculated to inspire trust. Phillips writes:

What [car salesmen] think is cool is viewed by the public as tacky and obvious. For example, why do they insist on wearing white shirts and silk ties? Or what about gold watches, rings and chains? Who wears that stuff anymore? Don`t they realize they are turning themselves into walking cliches? The only answer I came up with was that, as a salesman, I spent all my time with other salesmen. They were my friends. Believe it or not, I tried to fit in, to belong. So I began to develop an interest in gold ties, white shirts and dress shoes. I even grew a goatee because a lot of the guys had beards. And I put gel on my hair and combed it straight back.

On the other hand, Phillips hints at car salesman lore that fits the Informed Jerk model better:

Since I was still a “green pea” the other salesmen tried to push me to wait on undesirable ups — the undesirable customers who the salesmen thought wouldn`t or couldn`t qualify to buy a car. My manager had, at one point, described the different races and nationalities and what they were like as customers. It would be too inflammatory to repeat what he said here. But the gist of it was that the people of such-and-such nationality were “lie downs” (people who buy without negotiating), while the people of another race were “roaches” (they had bad credit), and people from that country were “mooches” (they tried to buy the car for invoice price). 

I`ll repeat what Michael, my ASM, told me about Caucasians . He said white people never come into the dealership. “They`re all on the Internet trying to find out what our invoice price is. We never even get a shot at them. I hate it. I mean, would they go (to a mall) and say, `What`s your invoice price on that beautiful suit?` No. So why are they doing it here?”

 

Presumably “lie downs” are African-Americans. The study by Ian Ayers of Yale Law School that Gladwell brought up as evidence that salesmen were unintentionally discriminating showed that black law students couldn`t negotiate as low a price as white law students. 

The rest of the sentence is a little ambiguous, but I`m guessing that “roaches” are Mexican-Americans (although Mexicans could be the bad negotiators and blacks the bad credit). I suspect that “mooches” “from that country” does not mean from Mexico, but is more likely referring to hard-nosed Asian immigrants such as Koreans.

In Phillips` experience, the American brand dealership he worked at second was less obnoxious, while the popular Japanese dealership was pretty much plain evil. That`s been my experience over the years with a certain gigantic T-y-t- dealership in the San Fernando Valley. They ripped my deaf octogenarian father off for a ridiculous interest rate when he could have paid cash for his Corolla. Mostly, though, they seem to exist to psychologically intimidate Mexicans into paying too much.