Jun. 30, 2008
Our reporter turns to old movie lines to make the deal
The salespeople at Desert Honda don't descend on customers like makos on a bleeding squid. They don't pressure them into buying now because it won't be here tomorrow.
"That's old school," says general manager Scott Bisbee during my training. "We use a little softer approach now with the close."
Just because they challenge the stereotype of the used-car salesman, however, doesn't mean I have to. I've got a checkered polyester blazer and a sheet of transcribed lines from the 1980 comedy "Used Cars," in which Kurt Russell rolled back odometers, attached bumpers with bubble gum and drew customers from competing lots by dangling $20 bills with a fishing pole.
"We don't have the fishing pole, either," Bisbee says. (Everybody in this industry watches "Used Cars" to learn how not to do their jobs.)
Before I can deal wheels alongside Desert Honda salesmen Uncle Bob, Deuce and Beaver, Bisbee presents me with apparently the most important tool for this job: my own silly nickname.
"Mr. Magoo was clueless," Bisbee explains. "But at the end of the day, he would always be the hero."
Potential customer number one enters my cross hairs, trying to remain undetected while walking toward the store's entrance in the spaces between Civic bumpers.
"I didn't catch your name," I address the gentleman in the board shorts, surfing T-shirt and sunglasses.
"I didn't give it to you," he replies.
I alert my potential customer to the fact that he's walking through a lot full of sensational pre-owned vehicles with his name on them (whatever his name may be).
"Man, I got a car with only 15,000 miles on it," he replies.
All Kurt Russell stops are pulled out at this point. And I'm pretty sure "the interior of this car matches the color of your eyes" is where my potential customer loses his potential.
As the gentleman walks off, Uncle Bob offers some advice.
"Whether you sell the car is in here," he says, pointing to his heart. "If they believe in you, they trust you, you sell the car."
Uncle Bob -- whose nickname comes from the fact that no one can pronounce his Thai surname, Laobuadee -- has been selling cars for 29 of his 50 years.
"A lot of it is emotional," he explains. "You're helping a lot of people, and you can see it when you put them in the car."
At Desert Honda, Uncle Bob works on a straight commission of $100 per vehicle sold. Once he moves 10 in a month, he receives a $1,000 bonus, followed by a $200 commission for every subsequent sale.
In his best month, Uncle Bob sold 48 cars. So far this month, his count is 10. He says that's because he just moved here from Utah three months ago.
"The more you stay here, the more you get to meet people," he says, which is why he is working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, until he develops a network of contacts. (Most used car salesmen set their own hours.)
The sound of a cowbell wafts from inside the store. When the bell tolls for you here, it's a good thing. It means a car has been sold. Uncle Bob's face contorts. Had he not been talking to me, he could have been the ringer.
"What's up, Tucker?" asks Las Vegas resident Judith Anglin as I approach her and her husband, Dedrick Hill. (Her contention is that I resemble former CNN "Crossfire" host Tucker Carlson and not Herb Tarlick from "WKRP in Cincinnati.")
I dip back into my 1980 movie dialog bag.
"I know what you're thinking, 'Can I afford to own this car?' " I ask as the couple checks out a black sedan with a $13,000 price tag. "Seriously, you can't afford not to!"
Anglin asks what model they're looking at. I check the sticker.
"It's a Garantia," I report.
That means warranty in Spanish.
Anglin inquires about the mileage.
"A little old lady drove it only to the store," I reply.
Hill checks the odometer. It reads 69,000 and change.
"She went a lot," I explain.
"We're leaving," Anglin tells her husband. "Come on! Tucker's trying to get us into trouble."
"What's it gonna take for me to put you in this car today?" I ask as they walk away.
"The keys!" Anglin shoots back.
Inside the dealership, I ring the cowbell anyway -- just to see how it feels.
"You just purchased a car!" Uncle Bob yells.
Uncle Bob's most memorable sale occurred about five years ago, when a man walked into his Utah Honda dealership asking for a CR-V.
"I didn't have one on the lot, so I drove seven hours to Wyoming to get one," he remembered. "I put on a U-Haul, put the CR-V on the back and drove in the snow.
"I couldn't see the road."
Of course, the customer could have changed his mind once he saw it. But Uncle Bob's risk paid off. The customer bought Uncle Bob his own new Civic for his trouble.
"He owned a record company in Japan," Uncle Bob says. "I didn't know."
A family of four walks to the south end of the lot with their eyes on a $14,000 2003 Honda Accord EXL (so I have to be told later). They are speaking Spanish.
"Hola!" I greet the Delinos. "Como estas?"
"We speak English, too," Martha Delino replies. (This is fortunate, because the only other Spanish I know would get me slapped.)
I can tell how itchy Uncle Bob is to take over, but he maintains his distance.
"You belong in this car," I say.
I'm now fresh out of "Used Cars" quotes.
Delino walks two circles around the exterior.
"I do like it," my bleeding squid replies.
Buying my schtick and buying my car are two separate acts, however. At the end of the day, will Mr. Magoo really be the hero?
There is one last hurdle, and its name is Remy McPherson. The sales associate sandwiches herself between me and Delino, handing her a brochure and beginning a dialog without the slightest acknowledgement of my presence.
"It has a 100,000-mile warranty," McPherson says. "A used certified car is the way to go, because it's treated like a new car."
I am reminded of all the jerks who used to step between me and a good-looking date, every time I was stupid enough to leave my Los Angeles apartment with one. In fact, McPherson's probably thinking the same thing as those jerks always were: If he can get this far, imagine how far I can get.
In the name of all the confidence I never had in those situations, I manage to hold my own in this one. I interrupt McPherson to introduce myself and explain how I was just about to take Delino for a test drive. (I wasn't.)
"Nice to meet you," I tell McPherson, walking Delino away and opening the door for her (something else I should have done more of while dating).
During our four-block circle, I ask Delino if she notices the smoothness of the EXL's ride.
"I like it," she says. "It's actually what I was looking for."
The sale no one thought possible -- least of all me -- is happening.
Once we're back inside the dealership, I turn Delino over to Uncle Bob, who takes her credit application.
I ring the cowbell for real. All my fellow sales associates applaud.
"Way to go, Magoo!" one yells.
Well, not all my fellow sales associates. Five are standing by a wall outside, acting like the guys who used to smoke underneath the football bleachers in between going to their eighth-grade classes and stealing my milk money.
"I just sold a car," I taunt them. "What have you been doing?"
Deuce eyes me up and down. The sheer preposterousness of my announcement requires time to sink in.
"You want to rent out that jacket to me?" he replies.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.