Ask Patty program aims to make car shopping comfortable for women
Brenda Webber will never forget when, while shopping for a new car, a salesman asked if she had her husband's permission.
Webber bought the car, a 1993 Subaru, but she swore she'd never go back to that dealer.
Now, as the general sales manager at McCafferty Ford/Kia Inc. in Mechanicsburg, Webber helps ensure that other women are treated better. She has worked in the car business for 10 years.
Through Webber's efforts, McCafferty has become the first "Ask Patty" certified car dealer in central Pennsylvania. Ask Patty is an Internet-based company where women automotive experts answer questions from other women about buying and repairing cars.
To become certified, McCafferty agreed to train and test several of its key management employees -- men and women -- on what they should and shouldn't do when serving female customers. The employees must pass a test given by Ask Patty before they can provide the same training to all the other workers at McCafferty, Webber said.
Women buy more than half of all vehicles sold in this country, Webber said. When the "influence" factor is added, women account for about eight in 10 vehicle purchases.
Ford and Kia don't give local statistics, but Webber estimates that McCafferty's sales to women are at least as high as the national figures. Yet the automotive industry routinely treats women as if they don't matter, she said.
When a woman comes into a dealer's showroom with a man, the salesperson instinctively directs questions and comments to the man, assuming he is the one making the decision, Webber said. A salesperson often hands the keys to the man for a test drive, even if the car is for the woman.
Webber said she has seen many times when a woman shopping for a vehicle will "borrow" a man -- perhaps a friend or relative or even neighbor -- to come with her to the dealership so she is taken seriously.
Peter Martin, founder and CEO of Ask Patty, said he knows of one case involving a Florida dealership where the salesperson wanted to know when the woman's husband would return from being deployed in Iraq.
In most cases, Webber said, the slights probably are unintentional. It's just that men -- and some women -- who work at dealerships selling and servicing vehicles assume women don't know anything about the subject.
"It's almost like a marriage. You may not mean it, but it sounds as if it does," she said.
Darlene Holderman of Mechanicsburg, a McCafferty customer, said she's never felt slighted as a buyer because she's a woman. She thinks that's partly because car shopping starts with being prepared.
"I pretty much know what I'm talking about. I research what I'm doing," said Holderman, who always buys used cars. "If they say it costs $10,000 and you know it's only worth $7,000, you aren't going to get slighted."
Cindy Kachel, another McCafferty customer from Mechanicsburg, said, "How you present yourself is how you are treated."
Women tend to do more car-shopping research online than men, said Frank Diggins, Internet director for Klick-Lewis Buick Chevrolet Pontiac in Palmyra. Although 18 percent of all Internet customer leads result in a sale for Klick-Lewis, that figure exceeds 25 percent among women customers, he said.
"I call them a stealth buyer. They know as much if not more," Diggins said.
He said Klick-Lewis, when possible, matches women shoppers referred from the Web to female sales agents so the women are "not being talked down to or talked up to."
Jim Porter, general manager of Bobby Rahal Toyota in Mechanicsburg, said he doesn't see the need to break down customers by categories such as race, gender, language or culture.
"We want our associates to treat people the way you want to be treated. That covers everybody," Porter said. "If you single out female buyers, where are you going next?"
Porter said his sales numbers and customer feedback tell him "we are doing the right thing."
Martin of Ask Patty said studies and surveys involving thousands of women nationwide tell him there's a problem, and that women are slighted by some dealers.
"It happens every single day," he said.