NEW YORK -- When I wrote last spring about the ways the auto industry still fails to understand women -- especially at car dealerships -- I didn't realize that a few months later I'd actually be buying a new car myself. But recently my husband and I brought home a baby blue Mazda 5 that can tote kids, bikes, in-laws, and the occasional minifreezer with ease. It's surprisingly zippy, takes corners well, and isn't nearly as uncool as the term "microminivan" implies. But the best part was buying it.
I bought online, which made negotiating the price for this cross between a minivan and a hatchback actually fun. From the relative anonymity of my laptop, I was able to solicit quotes from six different local dealerships via Edmunds.com and kbb.com. There was no being ignored when I walked in the door, as when I visited one near-empty dealership, nor any invitation to bring my husband along for my next visit, as when I visited another. And there was no subtle social pressure, real or imagined, to be conciliatory instead of assertive, which I've certainly felt in the past while haggling and which women tend to feel more than men. Indeed, given how unpleasant the car-shopping experience is for women, who find walking into a dealership to be like landing on an all-male, vaguely hostile planet, buying online is something tantamount to a feminist act.
If you've ever bought a car, you are familiar with the stomach-churching moment after the test drive when the salesman asks, "What would it take you to buy today?" and starts scratching out numbers on a pad. The process is notoriously confusing for everyone, but there's tons of evidence showing this system disadvantages women more than men. Buying online doesn't merely eliminate the physical discomfort women feel in car dealerships, though that counts for a lot. (Over email, no one asks about your husband; heck, no one even needs know your gender.) More importantly, it eliminates the land mines of Haggling While Female.
For a variety of reasons, women are not as good at negotiating as men. For one thing, we're not as practiced at it. Several studies have shown that women tend to negotiate less often, in part because the assertiveness required for the task gets socialized out of us. After all, nice girls aren't supposed to cause conflict, and there are real-world implications for those who buck the rules. In one study, both men and women pronounced female job applicants less hirable when they asked for more compensation than when male applicants did the same thing. (Male subjects in particular were less likely to want to work with women who tried to negotiate.) So it's not surprising that negotiating causes women more anxiety than it causes men and that women are less likely to realize they can negotiate in a given situation. You have to do all sorts of tricky things to get them to haggle, like describe it as "asking" instead of "negotiating" or explicitly tell them that they're allowed to do it. It's no wonder that women were said to flock to the defunct car company Saturn, which was known for its no-haggle policy.
Part of what's so crazy about buying a car the traditional way is that the Wild West pricing means there's no way to know whether the deck is stacked against you from the outset merely because you're a woman. Studies conducted in the '90s by economist Ian Ayres showed that Chicago-area dealerships routinely quoted blacks and women higher initial offers than white men, so that even after haggling they wound up with higher prices. Data from auto repair shops shows something more nuanced: Women are quoted higher prices unless they break gender stereotypes, either by showing they know the market rate for a repair or by insisting on a discount. All of which is why, when women buy a car, we first research the bejesus out of it. We know that certain salesmen will be inclined to treat us as easy marks, and we'll need to defy their expectations. So we prep and prep and then show up, hoping we don't get a jerk. Sure, we can request a different salesman or hit another dealership, but we'll pay for it in wasted time.
There's one factor that does away with a ton of these gender-based problems. According to the work of DePaul professor Alice Stuhlmacher, women consistently do better when they negotiate virtually. Stuhlmacher and colleagues compared face-to-face negotiations with those conducted online, by phone, or by video and found that time and again, women were more assertive when they weren't haggling face-to-face. Perhaps because they were less concerned about preserving relationships or coming across as nice, women were more apt to do things like lie for tactical reasons or stand firm at a number instead of making a counteroffer. There wasn't this gap between what's considered appropriate female behavior and what's smart negotiating behavior. Men, who face no repercussions for what's deemed a typically masculine endeavor, behaved the same regardless of the setting.
Virtual settings also appear to upset hierarchies, conferring more favorable outcomes on those with less power. Car dealerships are a prime example of settings where women have less power for a whole host of reasons -- because they are a minority, because automobiles are considered a traditionally masculine realm, and because the consumer in general is confused by the way car pricing works. (Is that $795 "destination fee" really necessary? Has the dealer's invoice price been inflated so you think you're getting a better deal?) Not only do virtual settings eliminate the status markers that might otherwise inhibit behavior, but they make it easier to remain poker-faced even if you are intimidated.
The major advantage I felt I had negotiating over email was time. High-pressure tactics in car dealerships rely, in part, on the consumer's desire to end a stressful experience as soon as possible. But, thoroughly empowered by all the information I had at hand, I found emailing back and forth with salesmen to be fun. The power dynamic was reversed; the dealerships now were the ones eager to secure my deposit before I got a better deal or before the end of the month, so they could make their numbers. I took my time. I looked up what others in my area had paid for the same car. I emailed around the lowest price I got (a good $2,500 under the highest) to see if other dealers could match it. I asked the dealers to enumerate every fee being added to the quoted price, and then I looked up the fees to see if they were legitimate. I inquired who was willing to trade with other dealers to get us the car in blue and who was willing to deliver the car to our house. (One dealership was, but the price was still too high.) Reading questions other buyers had asked alerted me to issues I hadn't considered and gave me social reinforcement that such questions were allowed. What surprised me was that, freed from that terrible certainty that I was going to get fleeced one way or another, I really liked negotiating. Being the well-informed, hard-nosed customer felt like karmic retribution for all those women talked down to, quoted higher prices, or told they'd look so good in a certain car.
In the end, playing dealers off one another was an interesting experiment, and several places lowered their prices by quite a bit, but the shop with the initial lowest quote was still the best. So I put down a deposit by email, and one Saturday, my husband, my daughter, and I drove out to New Jersey to pick up our new car. We walked in, signed our names a thousand times, and drove out with our Mazda 5 at the agreed-upon price in a mere hour.
Afterward, my husband said he'd noticed several salesmen in the store preferred to make eye contact with him. Maybe so, but if it were the case, I didn't notice. I was so damn happy.