Back in the days when President Ronald Reagan was staring down the Soviet Union, buying a car was often a prolonged process requiring considerable patience and mental endurance from both buyer and salesperson.
A typical visit to an auto dealership might start with a scrum of salespeople -- usually all men -- vying for your attention. And why not? Sometimes sizable sales commissions were on the line.
The salesman you ultimately hooked up with was likely to be your friend for the better part of a day as you spent hours haggling over prices, test-drove multiple vehicles, compared car interiors, eyed dozens of paint jobs and met a cluster of dealership officials summoned by your primary salesman as you methodically worked toward a deal. By the end of the day, maybe you had a car. Or it might have been just Round 1 in a days-long process.
Oh, how things have changed.
Face-to-face car selling has evolved into something resembling speed dating. According to numerous industry sources, a typical car-buying experience can be done in as little as two hours, including the trip to the finance office and signing all required documents.
As it has with so many industries, the Internet has changed everything.
Consumers who once had little to work with beyond the manufacturer's suggested retail price, or MSRP, and other basics listed on a vehicle's window sticker now have oceans of data available to them via car sites like Edmunds.com, Cars.com and AutoTrader.com. Prospective car buyers can easily obtain MSRPs on any vehicle, along with the invoice price, exhaustive lists of standard features and thousands of available options.
Today, it's not unusual for a car buyer to walk onto a dealer lot knowing the exact motor vehicle model and features they want, right down to the exterior paint color. And they're typically versed in just how much the dealer paid for the car.
"I would say the No. 1 change from a generation ago and now is the explosion of information available to consumers," said Brian Maas, president of the Sacramento-based California New Car Dealers Association. "Even in just the last five years, everyone walking into a dealership has a smartphone. They can take a picture, go on the Internet, check the price on any comparable car or check out all the features, all while they're standing there at the dealership."
The result, Maas said, is that ultra-informed consumers have "adjusted the burden to the salesperson on the sales lot. In some cases, (the customer) is more knowledgeable than the salesperson."
Dealers say good ratings also tend to prompt subsequent sales among customers' friends and family, a longtime hallmark of car selling. In today's brutally competitive climate, every dollar counts.