American Car
Actually Why Do We Haggle?

We had to make sure the horse that we were trading our horse in for wasn’t going to collapse and die on the way back from the Five and Dime. You have a price, and I have a price, and we make up the difference in cash, and that’s all there is to it. Back in the day, when our rides didn’t so much have wheels as they did hooves, we had to haggle.

We’ve traded in our horses for automobiles, and yet we will lowball and counteroffer, we will drive our hard bargains home when a car is on the line, like we’re negotiating for tchotchkes at a Third World souvenir stand, or perhaps for a hostage. We pay sticker price for every other consumer item. We don’t negotiate over the price of flatscreen TVs, or VHS tapes of Aladdin, or toilets, even though those can get pricey. Yet we still haggle for our cars.


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Haggling sucks. Haggling sucks for the 95% of us who aren’t domineering alpha males, inflated with rage and testosterone and amped to charge into battle, who stayed up the night before learning all the tricks and tells and psychological mind games to wheedle their opponent—the salesman across the desk—into submitting to this verbal wrestling match for the red key to a Dodge Hellcat. Both parties are up to it: “let me see my manager,” they’ll say, just when they’ve about had enough. Here we go—that’s when you know they’re going for another one of their oldest tricks!

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Tricks! Can’t trust the bastards!

I remember when I was seven years old, watching my father and the Chevrolet salesman glaring at each other across a table in the corner of an empty showroom. The dealership was closing as we were coming up to Hour Three of this veritable Cuban Missile Crisis. My mother glared at the lot of us and I begged my father to just buy the thing, please, so we can drive home already. All for what? A 1996 Lumina.

Conventional wisdom holds that only suckers pay the list price in the window.

It’s enough to make one throw in the towel and pony up, to pay whatever it is they’re asking just to get the whole ordeal over with.

But, of course, that means one walks away feeling ripped off. And your friends and lovers will think less of you once they find out you bowed out to a man in a branded polo shirt. Sucker! Hey chump, we got a bridge to sell you!

Why do we do it, anyway?

Pricenomics tries to answer this question, at great and detailed length. Example: it’s a vestige of horse trading because we still think of our cars as iron horses. Cars all differ in many ways; aside from the obvious makes and models, they differ in trim, age, mileage, and general hooptietude. Barring a house—as if anyone can still afford one of those—a car will be the most expensive thing we will ever buy, so we might as well make the most of it. And, simply put: haggling still works.

Saturn got rid of haggling at its dealerships. It went out of business. Scion got rid of haggling at its dealerships. It, too, went out of business.

Future companies may “disrupt” the dealership model, however, such as Carmax and startups like Beepi. We may see traditional stores get rid of the whole process altogether.

But until then, better brush up on your negotiating skills. No lowballers.

Image via Kevin McCauley


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