HAVE I GOT A DEAL FOR YOU!

Honest Corey sells cars at local Chevy dealership

 

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

      In 1994 I walked into Santa Monica Mitsubishi desperate to buy, a fact the lunging salesperson no doubt gleaned from the rental car I pulled up in.

      "What's your name?" he asked.

      "Levitan? What nationality is that?"

      It's Lithuanian Jewish.

      "Really?" he responded, eyebrows jumping. "I'm Lithuanian Jewish, too! My last name is Smith, but originally it was Lithuanian Jewish!"

      Selling used cars seemed like the perfect adventure to follow up my swimming with sharks column. It isn't exactly the most reputable job.

      But the folks at Martin Chevrolet in Torrance surprised me. Not only were they cool enough to let me approach actual customers on their lot on a busy Saturday afternoon, they challenged most of the common stereotypes about their profession.

 

      Of course, that didn't mean I had to challenge any of them. As Honest Corey, I reported for work in a Herb Tarlek/WKRP checkered blazer, loud Grateful Dead tie and reading glasses with the lenses poked out so I could see. (Coordinating this outfit was not easy. Most accessories tended to match at least partly with what I already had on.)

      For my new boss, manager Alex Bartra, 28, of Torrance, I proudly recited customer come-ons from the 1980 Robert Zemeckis comedy, "Used Cars," starring Kurt Russell.

      "It was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to the store!"

      "The interior matches the color of your eyes!"

      "I know what you're thinking, 'Can I afford to own this car?' Seriously, you can't afford NOT to!"

      Bartra was not impressed.

      "None of that stuff will work," he said, wondering what he got himself into. Bartra said it has to do with making the customer feel comfortable and not pressured.

      "If they like you, they're gonna spend the money where they're happy and comfortable," he said.

      My day began by catching up on gossip with Bartra and three salespeople in a white room strewn with newspapers and plastic utensils from old lunch breaks. It was not unlike high-school detention.

      "It beats a desk job," said Mark Whiteman, 43, of Gardena, who's begun his day in rooms lie this for 12 years.

      The room was a watchtower, providing an unobstructed view of the lot and the approaching customers, referred to as "walk-ons." I wondered how we'll decide who gets which walk-on.

      On some lots, salespeople simultaneously descend on walk-ons like famished ducks on a slice of Wonderbread. No less than five approached me when I pulled into another Torrance dealership to inquire about trying this adventure there.

      "Nice car!" one said.

      "What are you looking to trade it in for?" another salesperson competed for my attention, ignoring the first one.

      Had I been looking for a car, this walk-on would have walked off.

      "We don't have to jump on customers," Whiteman said. "We're a local dealership that's been here a while."

      Originally called Paul's Chevrolet and later Ted Green Chevrolet, Martin Chevrolet opened in 1948. It took on Martin Jacobs' name after he bought it in 1970. When Jacobs retired last year, general manager Joe Giacomin bought the 4.3-acre lot and kept the name, along with all 98 employees.

      "People who come here probably know somebody here or they bought a car from us before," Whiteman said.

      And Martin Chevrolet remains independent even as Auto Nation, the nation's publicly held largest auto retailer, has gobbled up 12 of the largest formerly independent South Bay dealerships.

      As for which salesperson gets which walk-on, Whiteman explained that "we pretty much wing it." He then showed me what this means: Whiteman goes first, then everyone else.

      He approached a man in his 70s, who wore a hat and Bermuda shorts and held a classified ad.

      "Can I help you?" Whiteman asked.

      The man needed more help than he knew. He wanted to see the vehicle featured in the ad ABOVE Martin Chevrolet's. He read it wrong.

      "False alarm," Whiteman explained when he returned to the watchtower.

      Martin Chevrolet features 86 cars on the "pre-owned" half of its lot. The models range from a 1996 Geo Prism ($5,999) to a 2002 BMW 325i ($38,991).

      "I'm gonna move that BMW," I declared. The other salespeople looked at one another, not sure how to react.

      The next customer was a blonde woman in her 40s. Dibs went to Johnny Gonzalez, 62, of Torrance, who opened a dialog the day before.

      She was interested in trading in her '96 Camaro for a 2000 ST Blazer, priced at $17,370. She bought the Camaro at Martin last year. While Gonzalez was busy appraising her car, I decided to try a trick.

      "You look familiar," I told the woman. "Didn't you buy that car here last year?"

      "Yeah, I did," the woman said. "Do you remember me?"

      "Of course I do," I said, sparking a friendly conversation in which she revealed the reason for her trade-in. She just dumped her boyfriend, so she no longer had his SUV to lug around her ski equipment.

      "What you just did is called 'Playhouse 90'," said Whiteman, referring to a 1950s TV series. "Like when you talk into a phone and say, 'Come on, can't you give me $300 more on this trade-in?,' and there's nobody on the other end.'"

      Bartra interrupted Whiteman.

      "Of course, we never do anything like that here," he said.

      What I did is also considered poaching someone else's sale, which is bad form. But Bartra did not discourage my guerilla tactics. When I informed him that I was not allowed to earn a paycheck during these adventures, he began rooting for me to go out and practice my salesmanship in any way possible. If I eventually sold a car all by myself, the dealership would save its standard commission and show 20 percent more profit.

      My colleagues were decidedly less enthused by that prospect. They work strictly on that commission.

      "You sell cars, you get to eat that week," Whiteman said.

      As it turned out, Gonzalez was lucky I struck up the conversation with his walk-on, who said she did not wish to be identified because "Torrance is a little town and some of my friends don't even know I broke up with my boyfriend yet."

      The woman seemed in a rush to leave and might have done so without someone keeping her occupied.

      After a couple of "just looking arounds" came my first promising shot at a sale. A beefy guy in a tank top was snooping around two 2002 Silverado LS-1500 pickups, one for $30,194, one for $29,276.

      "What are you thinking?" I asked, going for the low-pressure approach.

      "I'm thinking I want to buy one of these two trucks," responded David Schroeder, 39, of Redondo Beach.

      Yes! I could see the photo accompanying this article: Honest Corey in the closing room with my feet on the desk, pulling a Playhouse 90 with the financing options.

      Schroeder asked to enter the vehicles.

      "Sure," I said, "go ahead."

      "But the doors are locked," he responded.

      "Of course," I said.

      I sprinted to Martin's main office (located in the new car half of the lot), asking for the keys. I was told I needed the stock number from the windshields.

      "Who is that guy?" I heard one of the salespeople ask.

      I sprinted the length of the lot again, scribbled down the numbers and sprinted back. I could sense Schroeder's confidence in my authority eroding.

      As I unlocked the pickup doors, all out of breath, he posed a question.

      "What's the difference between these trucks?" he asked.

      All I could think to say was "about $1,000," but I knew enough to hold it in. Why can't someone buy a car without asking a question?

      I know nothing about cars. I don't even know why I bother raising the hood when there's a problem with mine. What am I looking for (to quote a classic "Seinfeld") a giant on/off switch that's switched to off?

      A salesperson named James Joachim stood in the periphery of my vision ever since my sprinting episodes. He hovered like he belonged in my swimming with sharks adventure, waiting for his opportunity to strike.

      I casually asked Joachim the difference between the two pickups. That was all the prodding he needed. Within seconds, it was over. Joachim had the hood up and was engaging Schroeder in a heated conversation about horsepower, cylinders and cubic inches.

      I stood there, holding the keys I had so proudly sprinted to fetch, utterly ignored. I was the nerd at the school dance, and I had just let the jock cut in with my date.

      The bad thing about consulting with other salespeople is that they immediately split your commission if the car is sold. If it's early enough in the sale, they could get full credit for it. And we were very early in this sale.

      "I have to go guys," I announced, barely acknowledged. "I have a customer waiting for me on the other side of the lot." Actually, I had a slice of pizza waiting.

      Only later, while Joachim took Schroeder out for a test drive, did I discover that I deserved to be skunked like that. Joachim was a new-car dealer. Without realizing it, I had crossed over onto his part of the dealership.

      Crossing over is cool when TV psychic John Edward does it, but is decidedly less so at Martin Chevrolet.

      When they can't make a sale on their side of the lot, new-car dealers sometimes cross over to the used side. My new co-workers pretended to be cool with this notion.

      "We work for the same team," they all said.

      The one time I saw it happen, however, I detected silent discomfort. Car salesmen are always protective of the unsold models they're still showing to undecided customers.

      After a couple hours, my co-workers loosened up. After observing my form, they realized there was absolutely no danger of my closing a sale by myself. Try as I might, I could not find a single customer willing to purchase a car without asking a question.

      "Do you have two-door Tahoes?"

      "Do you accept the GM discount?"

      "What's your interest rate?"

      Bartra pointed out a chart chalked onto a transparent window in his office to inspire me. It co-credited the 2000 Blazer sale to "Johnny/Corey"(although it misspelled my name).

      "You get the assist," Bartra said. "You kept that woman on the lot."

      Added Whiteman, "Wayne Gretsky never went down the ice by himself. He always had someone helping him."

      "Go out there and sell a car!" Bartra insisted.

      Alas, it was 4 p.m. and I was worn out from failure and overheated in my ridiculous outfit. I admitted defeat.

      Besides, the real reason I got credit for that sale is because Gonzalez is the guy the other salespeople enjoy ragging on. (Standing about 5'2", he looks like the sidekick Benny Hill used to slap on the head, only with hair.)

      "This guy catches on fast!" Whiteman said, clapping and laughing.

 

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