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New Car Buying Secret That Could Save You Thousands
by Denise McCluggage

"Wholesale" is a word that lights up most shoppers' eyes whether the subject is a pair of oxblood leather boots, a six-burner gas range or a flat-screen TV. When it comes to buying anything the one-up shopper is the one who can go to the source. "Retail" is a dirty word.

But many of even the savviest shoppers don't know that the car market has an equivalent to "wholesale." That's because it may be hidden in the very same car dealership that has a cast of smarmy salesmen with lines like: "So, little lady, what'll it take to get you into this car today?"

You can begin to unwrap the secret that will save you time and money if you can say "Fleet Manager."

Traditionally, the Fleet Manager of a dealership is in charge of selling cars and trucks in bulk to construction companies, rental agencies, sales departments, gas and electric companies, etc. Then a few insiders discovered that they could buy just one car from the Fleet department and still get the bulk sales benefits.

Here are some of those benefits:

  • No wheeling and dealing with the retail sales department. Bypassing the salesperson saves the time and stress of back and forth negotiating.

  • The Fleet Manager can close a deal without those mysterious conferences with the sales manager and the finance department. He saves his time and yours by handling the operation from start to finish. And time is money.

  • The fleet side deals in greater volume and can offer a better price.

  • The fleet side has less overhead that the retail side and often benefits from a holdback (kickback) directly from the manufacturer exclusive to the Fleet Department.

  • The Fleet Managers are more knowledgeable about their product than most salespeople and can more easily — and willingly — locate a different color or option package at a different dealership.

So why doesn't everyone buy from the Fleet Department?
For one thing, not all dealerships have a Fleet Department. Those that do permit but do not promote individual sales through their Fleet Departments. Some even use subterfuge to keep a customer from reaching the Fleet Department. (See "How to Buy from a Fleet Manager" below.)

And then there's the matter of maximizing profit. Obviously, dealers make more money from the naïve buyer who strolls through the door, gets in and out of a car, reads the sticker price in the rear window (a.k.a. the MSRP) and writes that amount on a check. (Or better yet finances it through the dealership.)

Salespeople, being vastly more adept at negotiation than most buyers, usually extract a better deal for the boss than the buyer could get by going through the Fleet Department.

If any of this puzzles you then you need to be reminded that a car dealership resembles a flea market more than it does Saks Fifth Avenue. The sticker price is merely a suggested starting point; let the haggling begin.

Many but not all dealerships have a Fleet Department now often called "Fleet/Internet" because the Internet is changing the way people buy cars. J.D. Power and Associates, the arbiter of most matters automotive, reports that 49 percent of car buyers now use the Internet in some way to make their automotive purchase. Of those who use the web, about 83 percent check out at least one manufacturer's site and 79 percent visit independent sites. (Kelley Blue Book, www.Edmunds.com, and www.ConsumerReports.org are the most popular of such sites.)

Still the only way in the United States to actually buy a new car is through a licensed new car dealer. Anyone who thinks he bought a new car on the Internet actually bought it through the Fleet/Internet department of some dealer or other to which he was directed by his Internet shopping.

He, and you, would probably save more by going directly to the Fleet Department of a dealership near you.

But even then the Internet is an almost necessary stopover. You can sit in one place and check out every make and model on the market. You can learn what colors, interiors and options are available. You can visit the sites of all the car magazines. You can read road tests by an assortment of experts and would-be experts. You can compare your choices side by side.

You cannot, however, actually drive anything. For a test drive you must go to a dealership.

Now this can be tricky.

There are car shoppers who feel an instant obligation to anyone who answers a question or grants them a test drive in a car. Truth be told, I'm one of them, but a former car dealer has assured me that test-drives and question-answering are all part of their day. They don't expect to sell to everyone who drives a demo. So drive as many cars as you need to make your decision.

Do not talk price or trade-in or deals. Just drive the car, take notes and maybe a few snaps with a digital camera to remind you of details.

It is when you know what you want — make, model, color, wheels, options — that you seek out the Fleet Manager and take a step toward car ownership.

HOW TO BUY FROM A FLEET MANAGER

  • Do your homework so you know exactly what you want. One reason that Fleet Managers can give you the price they do is that you are ordering a product, not taking their time to gather information, kick tires and make up your mind.

  • Find out the name of the Fleet Manager so that you are sure you reach that department directly and not a retail salesperson. Call the dealership and ask for the name (pretend you represent a large plumbing company if you want to).

  • Ask to be connected to that person or call back and make an appointment. Understand that at any time someone in retail sales might try to divert you from the Fleet Department into their bailiwick.

  • Tell the Fleet Manager what you want. If he/she doesn't have it on hand, it can probably be located elsewhere for you.

  • If there is no dealership with a Fleet Manager near you check the website www.teamfleet.com. It’s a site founded and maintained by John Melendez, himself a Fleet Manager. Besides citing lots of reasons for buying what he calls "fleetail" rather than retail he has created a list called "Best Dealers" organized by state and car make. You can also request a price quote on the vehicle(s) of your choice and you might get an answer. I struck out entirely on the five or six vehicles I asked about but was given a list of reasonable alternatives.

    But check the site and the dealers list; maybe you'll find the name and phone number of a Fleet Manager who is ready and willing to get it for you wholesale.