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A letter to the automobile dealers of America

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I'VE just spent more months than I'd care to count shopping for a new car, and I'd like to offer a suggestion to any dealers listening. Give your sales professionals, as you like to call them, a quick course in a very basic subject - Selling Cars to Women. On the surface, this gender-oriented instruction shouldn't be necessary. Both men and women, after all, want pretty much the same services when they buy a car: a knowledgeable salesperson, courteous treatment, and the fairest price possible. But based on my own experience - visiting nearly 20 dealers in three states - and the experience of other women I know, too many salesmen (alas, I've met only two saleswomen) still don't take female customers seriously enough.

A little background: In the early weeks of my search, my husband accompanied me to showrooms around Boston. But I quickly noticed an annoying pattern: When I'd ask a salesman a question, he'd often direct his answer to my husband. Color me invisible.

So I started going alone. But that introduced another problem: Many salesmen still seem to view women primarily as wives - subordinate creatures best suited for trying out the passenger seat, checking the lighted vanity mirror, and nodding in approval when their husbands ask, ``Do you like this color, hon?'' When a woman shows up as a customer, these salesmen, however well intentioned they might be, don't quite know how to act. They remind me of maitre d's I've encountered during solo meals on business trips - the ones who look around for a nonexistent male as they ask, ``Will someone be joining you, madam?''

For the most part an auto showroom is still a hallowed male preserve, not unlike a locker room or a male-only club - definitely alien territory for women. It isn't just the physical surroundings: the linoleum floor, the black-and-chrome chairs in the ``closing rooms,'' the cavernous interior. It's an attitude: part indifference, part condescension, part disbelief that someone in a skirt could deal with something so mechanical and so, well, expensive.

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