Sticking it to the girls

Conventional wisdom has it that mechanics, assuming women don’t know any better, will routinely overcharge them for auto repair. I don’t have any anecdotal data one way or the other, but I do know of instances where women were actually cut out of the purchasing loop because the salescreature would talk only to their husbands, so it seems at least plausible to me.

Now comes actual data:

A new study by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University finds that when it comes to auto repairs, women who don’t appear knowledgeable about cost may end up paying more than men. However, gender differences disappear when customers mention an expected price for the repair.

Not that anyone knows how much it costs to fix anything on a car these days, right?

The researchers set up field experiments to test the effects of men and women calling auto repair shops to ask for quotes on a 2003 Toyota Camry radiator replacement. The callers either appeared well-informed of the market price ($365), misinformed with expectations of a higher-than-average price ($510), or completely uninformed, with no price expectation.

Among those who appeared uninformed, women fared worse and were consistently quoted higher prices. Women who called and expressed knowledge of the market price received quotes in line with that expectation. Men, on the other hand, were quoted the same price whether they said, “I have no idea what this costs,” or “I know the average cost is $365.” As expected, both men and women were quoted significantly higher-than-average prices when they said their expected price was $510.

These presumably were independent shops. I can tell you that replacement of a radiator on a 2000 I30 at the Infiniti store, per Alldata, runs $515 plus an hour and a half labor, somewhere around $700 in all; when I took the car to an independent shop, I made a point of mentioning that figure. (They brought it in for $525, including replacement of both upper and lower hoses, which would have added $250 to the tab at the dealership.)

But here’s the catch:

When it came to negotiating for a lower price, many shops were unwilling to budge. However, when they did, it was more likely to happen for women than men. In fact, 35 percent of women were able to get their requested price met, compared to 25 percent of men.

“It’s kind of an ironic twist,” says Florian Zettelmeyer, the Nancy L. Ertle Professor of Marketing. “The same kind of cultural expectations that cause repair shops to overcharge women are probably also responsible for showing preference toward women in negotiations.”

I am not much of a haggler, this incident notwithstanding, and I would not be surprised to hear that a woman could do it better than I: shopping is in their genome, after all, or so conventional wisdom has it.

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