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Comparison Shopping for Really Big Scouts

My first full-time job out of college was as a comparison shopper for that old giant of discount women’s clothing, Loehmann’s. Yep, I got paid all day to shop, spy on the competition, and report my findings back to Loehmann’s headquarters in the Bronx.

I held this job for close to a year at the Durham, NC store and then about six months at the Los Angeles, CA store back in the 80s. It was pure performance art — a perfect fit for a young woman who’d spent years training for a career in the Theatre (capital T, pronounced with a bad British accent).

I also dabbled briefly in the world of “mystery shopping” a while back. Think of this as a the reverse of what I did for Loehmann’s. Instead of checking out the competition, mystery shoppers are hired by companies to check out how well they’re doing (e.g., Pizza Hut wants to find out if the local franchise is clean, giving good service, offering the latest deals to customers). Most of these jobs pay quite poorly, and it would be hard to make a living stringing these jobs together, but people do it, and if you love to shop and need a little extra cash, Google it and see what turns up.

With such notable employment experience under my belt, I thought myself primed and ready to tackle a task for the “Money Sense” badge: scouts are asked to go to a local mall and compare prices from store to store on the same item or types of items. Piece of cake.

But then the transmission went out on our 2002 Mazda Protégé. When we realized that the cost of repairing the car exceeded its Kelly Blue Book value, we realized it was time to get a new car, and this, my friends, is comparison shopping for Big Scouts.


Ever heard of something called the “Exchange Theory?” Marketers use it to talk about consumer behavior, but it’s really true for all kinds of human behavior. Before making a purchase (or volunteering time, or choosing a mate), we crazy humans do all kinds of subconscious mental calculations to see if it’s worth it. We want to know if the costs involved feel worth it. Are we getting all the features we want? If we do this, what will we have to give up in exchange? What’s the quid pro quo? Is it worth it? In other words, what’s in it for me?

We assumed from the start that we would buy another used car, but research indicated that the recession has increased the price of used cars more quickly than new ones. Check out this article from Edmunds and MoneyWatch for proof. Or just look below–you see any bargains in this screen shot? (If you think you do, you won’t by the end of this post.)

We don’t buy a lot of cars. We’re a family that drives a car until it drops. Our other car is a 1996 Geo Prizm, and I’m the original owner.  Other than the Prizm (an affordable purchase bought quickly in a time of need without any research), neither my husband nor I have ever bought a new car. And even though my dad was a champion haggler, I didn’t inherit that gene. Same with Charles.

Thus, in spite of our combined years on the planet, we found ourselves fundamentally unprepared to buy a new car. But knowing this, we tapped into the wisdom of others to help us compare and purchase wisely. We set a budget, and we agreed on the features we really wanted to have:

  • automatic transmission
  • good stereo
  • tinted windows
  • good trunk space into which large amplifiers and guitars could easily fit
  • good gas mileage
  • cruise control
  • decent pick-up on the highway–no wussy engines

I started comparing features and list prices. We both read reviews from consumers, as well as industry reviews from Edmunds, Yahoo! Autos and more. I downloaded the Edmunds iPhone app and used it to compare the stock at local dealerships.  We narrowed our choices to the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mazda 3, Honda Fit, and Honda Civic.

Here’s a good tip: If you want to look at cars without a salesperson breathing down your neck, do your window shopping on Sunday. Dealerships are closed in most states,* but you can walk around the lot to your heart’s content.  This helped us eliminate the Hyundai (looked, felt cheap in our price range), Kia (just didn’t wow us upon close look), and Mazda 3 (looks great and fun, but it’d be hard to lift heavy amps into the cargo space.

We started shopping in earnest, test driving the Ford, Nissan and Honda models. Our results:

You can probably tell: we went for the 2010 Civic, and that was a surprise to both of us. As the dealership was making room for 2011 models, our new car, complete with all the features on our wish list (automatic transmission, cruise control, tinted windows), came in just under $17K.

A Few Tips on Comparison Shopping for Your Next Car

Consider re-sale value. Again, we keep our calls until they fall apart around us, but if you don’t, then resale value should matter to you. Here’s a Forbes article on cars that lose resale value most quickly.

Shop in the autumn when dealers are looking to clear room for next year’s models. We got lucky with this one, but it made a big difference. We saved thousands on a new car this way.

Know that the wiggle room for negotiation depends a lot on the list price of the car. Cars in our price range (less than $18K) don’t offer a large profit margin to dealers to start with, so consumers will be haggling over hundreds–not thousands–of dollars. The real profit margins come with more expensive cars–that’s where you can really knock down a price. That’s when I’d want to channel my father and his ancestors from the Great Beyond.

Cash is not always king anymore. You’d think you’d automatically get a price break for paying cash, but that’s no longer necessarily the case. Salespeople may be getting a commission off of your financing, too, and it’s now in their best interest to get you to pay for more car over time.

Shop for your financing. If you can’t pay cash for your car, the dealer may not have the best deal. Check with your credit union or bank before you sign on any dotted line. Compare interest rates, monthly payments. Tell the dealership you plan to shop — they may come back with a better deal on financing. If you buy the car with your own financing and the dealership still insists that you complete a credit application to run a credit check, say no. I’ve read that some dealers insist on this and claim it’s part of the Patriot Act. Oh yeah? Make ’em show you the passage that gives them that right.

Compare incentives and rebates. This could truly change your out-of-pocket or long-term expenses. Even if you plan to pay cash, you may get a rebate for financing through your dealer. If there aren’t any penalties for pre-payment of the loan, you might consider taking the financing to get the rebate, then paying off the car a week later. Game, set, match.

Skip the upsells. Skip the extended warranty, don’t pay for “dealer prep”, and don’t get sold on the high-end package if that’s not what you really wanted in a car in the first place.

Be ready to hear “Gosh, I dunno — I’d need to talk to my manager first.” This happens when you’re really close to a price. Your salesperson will now excuse him/herself to have a serious fiscal discussion with his/her boss about a few hundred dollars. What they’re usually doing is killing time, talking about vacation plans, and psyching you out a bit. Don’t let it stress you out.

I learned a LOT about comparing and shopping for cars, and we’re in complete agreement–we made the right choice. When I first drove the Civic, I felt as old as every one of my fifty years, but I got over it. We’ll be happy with this car for many years to come. First big road trip coming soon…


*Until we started shopping, I actually didn’t realize car dealerships were closed on Sundays! It’s a left-over Blue Law, prohibiting a business from opening on the official day of rest and worship. There’s another theory as to why car dealerships have continued to happily shutter their doors on Sundays when other retailers have long-since opened up: it’s because the financial institutions who would be running credit checks and processing car loan paperwork are closed.


One thought on “Comparison Shopping for Really Big Scouts

  1. I discovered that the dealerships were closed on Sundays in 2004 when I went shopping for my most recent car. I have to say that while on the property I was waiting for a police car to drive by and tell me to get off their property. But it never happened. You would have thought I’d know the dealerships were closed on Sundays after all my Grandfather was a car salesman.

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