OUT OF THE BAG”
Dealer Invoice Price When The Internet Arrived
(Second Edition - Published April 2014)
In the mid-1990s, in response to the sudden easy access to invoice prices when the Internet arrived, the auto industry launched a secret program to “redesign” the automaker-dealer financial relationship from the ground up, a process that has continued ever since.
This game-changing fact was deeply buried until 2012, when automotive consumer advocate James Bragg “cracked the code” and unearthed the truth.
In this “bombshell” of a book he describes that discovery process in detail and shows how the total reconstruction of the invoice-retail price relationship has (a) turned the consumer perception of “dealer cost” into absolute fiction, (b) radically transformed the nature of dealer cash incentives and (c) outdated the core assumption behind all the “target price” negotiating advice on the Internet.
His discovery obsoletes the “convention wisdom” on the subject and opens your eyes, finally, to the long-hidden hidden truth about the “dealer Invoice price.” He then tells you how to apply this knowledge the next time you’re car shopping.
Letting The Cat Out Of The Bag lets all the hot air out of the “boomfog” of information and advice you’re finding elsewhere. It makes the invoice-based “target prices” on those other auto-info sites about as valuable as a snooze button on a smoke alarm. And it will change forever the way you approach the process of buying or leasing a new car.
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For a serious look at what’s in this “Fountain of Truth,” check out the Preface, Table of Contents and the first four chapters below.
Automakers redesign their vehicles about every five or six years. They shine their headlights brightly on those new-and-improved beauties to spread the word to every nook and cranny in America.
But no headlights have been cast on the jaw-dropping “total redesign” of the automaker-dealer financial relationship that began in the mid-1990s and has continued, year after year, ever since.
This book is the stand-in for those headlights that went AWOL when they should have been trained on that seismic shift in the way dealers are compensated. It’s about why and how that “redesign” was done and how it changes what you should do to shop smart for a new car.
It’s also a critique of those well-known sources of new-car pricing and negotiating advice, the “experts” we would have expected to uncover and reveal this game-changing information to us over a decade ago, but seem to have either missed it or chosen to ignore it.
In sharp contrast to those trusted sources, this book will open your eyes to the pivotal fact about the new-car business that’s been hidden from you for almost twenty years.
It should convince you to ignore everything you’re being told about the smart way to buy a new vehicle on all those “expert” websites.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Why I wrote this book|
No one was telling consumers the truth. Somebody had to. After 15 years+ uncovering it, I knew if I didn't do it, no one would.
2. Question authority.
Why we shouldn’t trust everything those online “experts” tell us.
3. George Will was right.
How we short-circuit our connection with reality when we send our common sense on an extended vacation.
4. What if the store were ours?
Probing how you and I would act if our skins were in the game.
5. My vine has 125,000 grapes.
How my customers’ transaction reports cast serious doubt on what Consumer Reports and those auto-pricing websites are telling us.
6. The way it is . . . is not the way it was.
How the information you’re getting about “dealer incentives” is so out-of-touch with today’s reality, it should be wearing bell bottoms in the Smithsonian.
7. ” Loose lips sink ships.”
The wealth of “inside information” my customers pick up from dealer personnel during the purchase process paints a revealing, behind-the-scenes picture that points to just one conclusion.
8. Hiding (in plain sight)
Sometimes the answer to a puzzling question is right under your nose. Once I got a good sniff, I was on that scent like a mad dog on a wounded squirrel.
How a few old books, some archeological number digging and a “cold-case” analysis uncovered the sea change in the invoice-retail price relationship that began in 1995 and continues today, an eye-opening bombshell the big auto-info players seem to have missed.
10. Silence is golden.
Why I’m convinced the big auto-pricing websites haven’t enlightened you on this subject. I gave five of them incontrovertible proof of this ongoing, 18-year “redesign” in November 2012. Their subsequent silence speaks volumes about their credibility — especially that of Consumer Reports, which has hidden this core truth about its signature product category.
11. The dealer is not your enemy.
The bum rap dealers get. How they’ve improved their act dramatically. And why you should cut them some slack.
12. The cards have been dealt.
The “truth cards” are in your hand. It’s time to review what you’ve learned and what you should do with this knowledge the next time you’re new-car shopping — including what your objective should be and the best way to achieve it.
I’m just planting the seeds. To grow this forest of truth, these seedlings must be planted more broadly. I need your help to make that happen.
The data “bombshell” that neuters all the information and negotiating advice you’re being fed on and off the Internet.
Words Truth Seekers Live By
Almost all of which are relevant to the subject of this book.
”It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so." — Mark Twain
Why I Wrote This Book
I never thought I’d be writing a book that could change how consumers understand and approach the dreaded process of buying or leasing a new vehicle. But after twenty years as perhaps the country’s only full-time consumer advocate for new-car shoppers, I realized that if I didn’t write it, no one would. |
I’ve long suspected that the conventional wisdom about the financial relationship between automakers and their dealers was several gas stops short of the whole truth. I was running into so many anomalies to that wisdom that I felt there had to be a “missing link” in the information chain. If I was right, all the negotiating advice the Internet “experts” were dispensing based on that information was both misleading and a threat to consumers’ bank balances.
This book is about the quest to find that link and confirm its existence by uncovering the core facts needed to expose the whole truth.
Initially, my skepticism was based on plain old common sense, which almost shouted at me that the basic assumption behind the information and advice we were getting was whacko! It just couldn’t be true about any retail business.
But nobody’s “gut feeling” ever proved anything. I had to dig out the facts that would confirm that what was in my gut wasn’t just indigestion.
I was probably in a unique position to tackle this.
• I‘ve been a consumer advocate for new-vehicle shoppers since before the Dead Sea got sick.
• As the hands-on owner-operator of Fighting Chance.com, a unique, personally-accessible information service founded in 1992, I’ve logged over 60,000 hours focused on one subject: the consumer’s smart purchase and lease of new vehicles.
• And since I get no revenue from the automobile business, I have no conflict-of-interest issues.
I have never been an “insider” in that business. But I managed an auto brand’s advertising campaigns for several years.
I’ve also learned a lot from people I’ve met in the auto business, some of whose advertising accounts I’ve “pitched” over the years.
Most important, I’ve had a 20-year personal relationship with tens of thousands of “consumer spies,” car-shopping customers who add to my expanding knowledge of the subject every working day.
I’ve helped over 125,000 consumers negotiate the best deals available. Some of the most revealing insights have come from their post-purchase phone calls and transaction reports. They’ve provided the building blocks that have helped piece together a behind-the-scenes picture of how the money side of the business really works today — a picture often aided by comments made by loose-lipped dealer personnel.
Some will claim that I wrote this book as a commercial for Fighting Chance. That’s not true. It will remain what it’s been for 20+ years: an information service small enough to enable us to talk to our customers, answer their questions and learn from their experiences. We’re selling little pieces of ourselves, and we can talk to only a limited number of new-vehicle shoppers each day.
I’m a healthy 78-year-old who quit playing baseball (not that wimpy game of softball) competitively with men in their 30s and 40s when I was 72. I have no interest in “retirement.” (I hate golf.) I’m on a mission to spread the truth broadly, a consumer advocate-turned-activist who’s not going away anytime soon. I don’t invent the news. I just dig it out and report it when it’s clear that no one else will.
I am not “anti-dealer.” (You’ll understand this in the chapter titled “The Dealer Is Not Your Enemy.”) But I am tenaciously “pro-consumer” and “pro-truth” — the whole truth. When no one else is telling it, I will.
Twelve to thirteen million Americans buy or lease a new car every year. I believe they’re all entitled to that truth when they’re making their second most expensive purchase. But they’re not getting it from those long-trusted, “expert” new-car information websites.
It took over a decade of slowly mounting evidence to paint a complete, credible picture of the whole truth. The picture is fact-based and leads to a single logical conclusion.
In essence, this book presents the strong opinions I’ve come to, built on a rational, step-by-step analysis that: (1) starts with a solid base of common sense about consumers and business in general, (2) adds a mountain of anecdotal evidence from over 20 years of conversations with my customers and their transaction reports, (3) exposes in stark detail the incontrovertible, year-by-year total reconstruction of the automaker-dealer financial relationship and (4) finishes with my assessment of the questionable value to consumers of the car-buying information and negotiating advice on the Internet.
At USA TODAY’s invitation, I participated in a November 27, 2012 “open and candid roundtable discussion” on “whether online car shopping and information services are believable and are relevant in today’s market.” At the meeting I distributed an exhibit with the undeniable evidence of that “missing link” to senior executives of Consumer Reports, Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, TrueCar and Cars.com. (You’ll find it starting on page 73 of this book.) All the participants left with that exhibit.
The newspaper’s December 7, 2012 article on that meeting seemed to echo my conclusion. The headline: “Surprising tips for car shopping in the Internet age.” Followed by: “While sharp-minded buyers are likely to feel almost smug nowadays, armed with more inside information than ever, it can be incomplete and misleading.” (Google “USA TODAY Automotive Roundtable” to read the online version of that piece.)
The discovery process was like peeling an onion, layer by layer, to get to the truth at its core. I’d say it will be eye-opening, but . . well, . . onions and eyes are not the most comfortable metaphor companions.
One of my heroes is the late Andy Rooney, the legendary weekly commentator on 60 Minutes who died at 92, one month after his final regular appearance. My favorite Rooney quote is, “I believe that if all the truth were known about everything in the world, it would be a better place to live.”
With a tip of the cap to Andy, let’s start peeling that onion.
” No statement should be believed just because it was made by an authority.”
— Robert A. Heinlein, Science fiction writer (1907-1988)
We’re all a tad gullible. If there’s something we know little about, we tend believe what we’re told by those who appear to be more knowledgeable. A body of “conventional wisdom” develops on the subject that is widely communicated by “authoritative sources” that we come to trust. They tell us what they believe is the truth, and we accept it at face value. |
But what’s the basis for their belief? Is it logical? Accurate? Fact-centered? Current? What if the answer to those questions was “yes” for many years, but then the underlying facts changed dramatically, invalidating their information and advice? If they failed to bring their position into synch with the new reality, would that mean they were lying to us, or “conning” us?
Not necessarily. It might simply mean they were behind the curve of events and hadn’t caught up with the new paradigm on the subject. You can’t be telling a lie if you don’t know the truth.
But alternatively, it might mean that they had a vested interest in the status quo and found the newly revealed truth disruptive, even threatening.
Whenever a new way of thinking obsoletes an old way, there are winners and losers.
For centuries, the world’s most respected thinkers were convinced that the earth was flat, so that became the conventional wisdom. Those ancient wise men, priests and philosophers who championed the flat-earth position were feted and revered by their adoring believers. They had a good thing going.
Then one day in 1519 it was gone, when Ferdinand Magellan woke up and said, “Those guys are whacko! That flat-earth gibberish doesn’t make sense. If the earth were flat, all the water in the ocean would fall off the edge, right? But if it does, where does it go, and why don’t the oceans dry up? I’ve gotta get a big stash of cash from King Charlie and go find out.” He was the first to circumnavigate the globe. And his discovery wiped out several centuries of conventional wisdom and put a few thousand wise guys on the unemployment line.
Those whackos have their modern counterparts. The Flat Earth Society lives and breathes today, a ragged collection of 3,000 mentally- challenged folks who hold that “humanity lives on a disc, with the North Pole at its center and a 150-foot high wall of ice at the outer edge.” (Check them out on Wikipedia for a few grins.)
But I digress, for which I apologize and return to the business at hand . . . .
For several decades, consumers have looked to authoritative sources they trust, on and off the Internet, for information and advice on how to navigate a purchase process they detest (buying a new car) and end up feeling good about the result.
Over those decades, a body of “conventional wisdom” developed on the subject that’s still in general use today. Its core element is “the dealer invoice price,” which has become the basis on which consumers gauge the quality of the deal they’ve struck. If the selling price they get is near to or below that number, most folks feel they’ve done reasonably well.
That’s because they think the dealer invoice is a good estimate of the dealer’s real cost. That’s what they’ve been led to believe over the years by those authoritative sources they trust. And all those “experts” have been singing from the same page of the hymn book, using the invoice price as the foundation for their information and advice.
Alternate “experts” figure their net invoice numbers slightly differently.
• Some add an estimate of the automaker’s mandatory regional group advertising charge.
• Some subtract “holdback” — money in the invoice price that’s returned to dealers after the sale, typically 1% to 3% of the invoice or sticker price.
Some auto info websites may indicate that all new vehicles have holdback, even showing estimated dollar amounts for each model. But holdback is on its way to extinction. Several brands have eliminated it. Audi, BMW and Land Rover haven’t had it in years. Lexus deep-sixed it in February 2012, and Lincoln followed suit later that year. Mercedes dropped it in April 2013, and Infiniti did in January 2014. Those dollars remain in the dealer invoice price, but that money goes to other, secret dealer incentive programs, so car shoppers can no longer use it as a “bargaining chip.”
I believe Jaguar, Mini and Scion also have no holdback. I expect more brands to dump it in the next several years, using those dollars to reward dealers in other ways, many of which may have no relation to sales (e.g., covering the cost of free “loaner cars” to service customers). Slowly but steadily, holdback is riding off into the sunset.
However the invoice prices are figured, the implicit message consumers get from those “authorities” is that those numbers are their “expert” estimates of the true dealer cost. (Fighting Chance customers are typically educated, sophisticated adults, but most of them come to me believing that.)
That amount, those trusted sources have claimed or implied over the years, is the information we need to “negotiate the amount of profit” the dealer will make on the sale. It’s also typically the base number they use as they go through the rationale for both the target prices and the negotiating tactics they recommend.
Since we’re all babes in the woods on this subject, this sounds to us like the “inside skinny,” so we’ve swallowed it — hook, line and sinker.
Problem is, the dealer invoice price, even after subtracting holdback dollars and any of the less common vehicle-specific dealer cash incentives, is not a true dealer cost item today. Instead, it’s an imposter posing as the genuine article, a fictional smokescreen developed to hide the reality. As a result, those online “target prices” that are based on that imposter will never make dealers unhappy. And they typically won’t be the best prices available in your market.
A bevy of auto-info website “authorities” can tell us “what a dealer paid” for any new car on his lot. But the implicit assumption that what he paid initially is what he ends up paying (or even close to it) is at odds with both common sense and the reality of today’s financial relationship between automakers and their dealers.
Given their decades of experience with new-car pricing and their day-to-day contact with its frequent changes, wouldn’t you think that someone at one or two of those “authorities” would have had enough curiosity to notice the dramatic “redesign” of that financial relationship as it unfolded right before their eyes, year after year, for over 18 years?
Isn’t that a colossal oversight by organizations known as reliable sources of new-car pricing?
So how credible are those “authorities” on this subject? Consumers perceive the pricing they provide as a real dealer cost item. But that perception is based on an implicit assumption about the factory-dealer financial relationship that hasn’t been true for over 18 years. What does that say about the competence and/or willingness of those “authorities” to dig out and report the truth?
And if many of those “authorities” were handed the stone-cold proof of the total reconstruction of that relationship late in 2012, but have ignored it and made no change in the information and advice they’re giv¬ing you when you’re making your second most expensive purchase, what does that say about the strength of their commitment to help you win?
In my view, that’s like handing us a tattered red cape, giving us a rub¬ber sword, opening the arena door and introducing us to the angry bull. (Guess who gets skewered in that contest.)
Yes, Andy, the world would be a better place if all the truth were known about everything.
As a corollary, consumers would be able to negotiate better new-vehicle prices if they knew the truth about how new-car dealers are compen¬sated for their sales.
Isn’t it about time someone let that cat out of the bag and illustrated convincingly why “no statement should be believed just because it was made by an authority?”
“This is an age in which one cannot find common sense without a search warrant.”
— George Will, American Journalist & Author
3 (Onion Layer #1)
George Will Was Right..
Let’s face it. We all dread the task of buying or leasing a new car. We’d rather take a long walk off a short pier. Or suffer through a root canal procedure. That makes this a situation where the stars are perfectly aligned to make smart people do dumb things. |
There’s a mountain of car-buying information and advice on the Internet. We feel terribly mismatched in that process, so we spend hours climbing that mountain, hoping to find a way to level the playing field.
But somewhere along the way, we abandon our common sense and start believing everything we’re told there. The purpose of this chapter is to jump-start yours and give it some necessary exercise.
Common sense is typically defined as "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts." It’s the body of knowledge and experience people gain as they become adults.
The Cambridge Dictionary calls it "the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way."
Assuming you feel you can make “sound and prudent judgments based on a simple perception of the situation or facts,” let’s start exercising that ability.
• For openers, we purchase hundreds of goods and services each year for ourselves and our families — items sold on the Internet and in a gazillion retail stores.
• And there isn’t a single one of those goods or services for which anyone can tell us the seller’s cost.
• Yet it seems that for years we’ve been willing to believe that some consumer-oriented organization or new-car pricing website can tell us what a new-car dealer “really pays” for a $12,000 to $100,000+ vehicle.
Mind you, the dealership is owned by a corporation or a successful person or family with strong business acumen and a $10 million net worth, at least $5 million of which is invested in their car store. “Stupid” doesn’t get anyone to $10 million. Do you think those owners would allow you and me to know the true cost of the cars they sell? Really?
Does that pass your common sense sniff test?
• Now ponder this: If Consumer Reports and other auto-pricing websites can give us a number close to a dealer’s real cost, why are new cars the only products for which this info is available? If we can get it for cars, isn’t it odd that no similar service provides it for motorcycles, boats, motor homes, tractors, private airplanes, home appliances, flat-screen TV sets, iPhones, ground beef, prescriptions, insurance policies, t-shirts, jeans, Q-Tips, etc.?
Doesn’t this wave another common-sense red flag?
• Now let’s examine whether the gross profit built into the widely-available new-car pricing info passes our common sense test. Those invoice prices we can readily find are accompanied by the corresponding manufacturer’s suggested retail or “sticker” prices, which are posted by federal law on every new vehicle’s window sticker.
A cursory look at today’s invoice/retail price relationship reveals that there’s not a single new car with more than a 10% difference between the invoice price and the MSRP. The manufacturers’ suggested retail prices for most new vehicles carry a gross profit percentage in the range of 4% to 8%. And that’s at the full sticker price! Except for the guy who just fell off the turnip truck, who pays that?
This is a fact: No retail store could operate profitably if its “cost of goods sold” were 90% of its sales. At that tiny gross margin level there wouldn’t be a single store open selling anything.
Every retail store, including a new-car dealership, has substantial overhead expenses. Rent or mortgage payments, employee payroll, inventory financing charges, insurance, advertising, taxes, telephone and other office expenses. In the retail car business, that overhead expense is about 12% to 15% of total sales. To earn an acceptable profit and return on investment, a retail store’s gross profit on sales before overhead must typically be in the range of 25% to 35%.
Yet we’re supposed to believe an assumption that defies human logic — that the dealer invoice price (minus “holdback”) is a credible estimate of what auto dealers really pay for the new vehicles they sell!
Do we abhor that purchase process so intensely that we need to believe an assertion that isn’t close to being a "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts?"
Are we really that gullible? Aren’t we just conning ourselves when we accept as true information that flies in the face of our common sense?
Let’s follow this line of thinking by examining how we’d act if we had some serious skins in the retail game.
”Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.”
— Will Rogers
4 (Onion Layer #2)
What If The Store Were Ours?
The purpose of this chapter is to drive the “common sense” message home by making the situation personally relevant to you and me. |
But first, ponder this: Where do you think Consumer Reports and those auto-pricing websites get dealer invoice prices? From skywriters? Candy wrappers? Twitter? Cereal boxes? YouTube? Lottery tickets? Victoria’s Secret catalogues?
Believe it or not, that information comes straight from the horse’s mouth — the automakers that set those prices. Why are dealer invoice prices made public? I’m not omniscient, but here’s my take:
Traditionally, the automakers’ captive finance companies provided about 40% of new-vehicle financing. Banks had roughly the same share, and credit unions and independent finance companies accounted for the other 20%.
Those important third-party financing sources needed that information to be confident that they weren’t loaning a lot more money than the vehicles were worth. So the automakers had to provide it to lending institutions, which shared it with their loan prospects. As a result, those numbers became public information anyone could access by walking into a bank. Eventually they also were published periodically in Edmund’s and ConsumerGuide paperbacks, and they were available from Consumer Reports’ New Car Price Service.
At an early 1980s market research luncheon meeting, I sat next to the day’s keynote speaker, one of the country’s most knowledgeable researchers on the retail auto business. I asked him, “What percentage of new-car shoppers walks into car stores with the dealer invoice price numbers?” His answer: “Not over 10% to 15%.”
That didn’t become a serious problem for dealers until the Internet exploded in the mid-1990s, when any doofus with five thumbs and a keyboard could get the invoice prices for free without leaving home.
Let’s inject ourselves into a scenario similar to the one faced then by car dealers.
• Assume you and I owned a successful retail store selling something reasonably expensive, like those $2,000+ flat-screen TV sets.
• Let’s further assume that, like the automakers, the TV manufacturers revealed our “dealer invoice prices,” and websites similar to those big auto-pricing sites made them available to anyone interested in buying what we sell.
We’re not stupid. If those invoice prices were what we really paid for those flat screens — or even close to it — it wouldn’t have taken us more than two minutes to call Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, JVC, Sharp, Toshiba, Sanyo and the others and scream, “We’re getting killed here! If you don’t find a way to compensate us that consumers can’t find out about, no stores will sell your products!”
New-car dealers aren’t stupid either. If those invoice prices that started showing up on those auto-pricing websites in the mid-1990s were anywhere near their real costs, wouldn’t every dealer have made the same phone call? Wouldn’t they have been on those automakers like ugly on a baboon?
But they weren’t.
Their invoice prices have continued to be widely available, on and off the Internet, year after year. And no dealers complain.
Shouldn’t that jolt us into doubting those who want us to believe that the invoice price, however they define it, is close to the bona fide dealer cost and recommend that we aim for target prices that are based on that number?
Wouldn’t that doubt be "a sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts?”
I’ll tell you a little secret. Auto dealers absolutely love having those invoice numbers broadcast all over the Internet! And that’s because, on this subject, they know we’ve sent our common sense on a multi-year vacation to Dumbsville, and we’re willing to believe anything we’re told.
Do you believe, readers, that dealers and automakers, the only possible sources of the real cost information, would make it available to Consumer Reports or any other car-pricing organization if they really didn’t want you to know those numbers? Does that pass your common sense sniff test? Isn’t that naivety on stilts?
Well over ten years ago these common-sense considerations convinced me that dealers were receiving a very substantial amount of hidden revenue from automakers.
Clearly, there was a missing link in the factory-to-dealer revenue stream that everyone in or dependent on the auto business was hiding.
I was determined to find that link, focusing on each new piece of evidence as it was uncovered over several years.
The next few chapters will take us further into that onion.
After reading this much, I hope you’ll be wondering how you ever fell for the ancient conventional wisdom you’ve been told for so many years by all those auto websites and Consumer Reports.
I also hope you might like to have a copy of this “bombshell” that’s going to shake up all of those bogus “auto-info experts” on the Internet by exposing the long-hidden truth that every new-car shopper needs to know — the truth that they’ve been hiding from you ever since I laid it out to them in living black and white in November 2012.
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