Rewind: “99 Red Balloons”

I walked into a dealership this week that was doing a “gypsy sale.” It reminded me of this fictional tale that I wrote almost exactly five years ago, so I thought I’d repost it here. Fun fact: this story was based on many, many true things, not the least of which is that I knew of a GM store in New Orleans that had (and probably still has) exactly this balloon strategy on the lot every Saturday. It was heartbreaking to watch children dancing around with red balloons. 

Enjoy.

-Bark

“Saturday morning, Studly!” Jimmy slurped aggressively from his third cup of coffee. Over his shoulder, past the tall plate glass of the recently remodeled dealership, the sun was just starting to rise. He punched me playfully on the shoulder. “Another chance to make yourself rich and famous.”

Jimmy was one of the more tenured salespeople on my lot. His ever-growing paunch, concealed by the poly blend polo we all had to wear, sagged grotesquely over his belt, severely testing the strength of the waistband of his worn cotton khakis. He had been athletic at some point (or at least the pictures on the wall of his cubicle suggested he had), but now his six-foot three inch frame showed the wear of three years of seventy hour workweeks. Undoubtedly, Jimmy had consumed enough coffee and food from the roach coach to kill normal men.

I had not.

That Saturday was my first at Wayne Nelson Automotive. I was fresh out of college—and when I say fresh out of college, I don’t mean I was a college graduate. I mean that I was fresh out of money. My parents hadn’t been able to give me much help for college, so I had been forced to “take a break,” as I called it, just after my twentieth birthday. The job market for under-experienced kids wasn’t so hot, so I answered an ad on a jobs board for a “New Car Consultant” at Wayne Nelson, which was the biggest dealer in town. We had eleven rooftops, all in one big row just outside of the outer belt. I had seen more Wayne Nelson commercials growing up than I could remember. He was known throughout the city as being a drunk and a philanderer, but he was also a big supporter of local college athletics, which forgave a lot of sins in the South. Nobody in the city knew it, but Wayne was just the face of the dealership. His older brother, David, was the brains of the operation. He gave Wayne enough money to be dangerous and to deflect the attention of the public while he did the day-to-day operations.

As such, it was David who led the Saturday morning sales meetings. Apparently, we all had to show up an hour early on Saturdays, “So that David can scream at us for not hitting the ever moving targets that he sets for us,” laughed Jimmy. “Then we go back to our stores and our GM takes a turn yelling at us. Then the New Car Manager takes his shots. It’s a real fuckin’ inspiration fest, I tell ya.”

I had not exactly set the world on fire my first week on the floor at the CDJR (that’s Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-RAM) store. I sold precisely zero cars. The only family I had sold on a unit turned out to be credit roaches. I’d worked fifty-seven hours before I set foot on the lot that morning. I knew that I had at least another ten hours ahead of me that day, and even worse…it was gypsy sale day.

“What’s a gypsy sale?” I had asked Jimmy earlier in the week when I first saw some of the administrative staff hanging up the big SALE posters around the showroom floor.

“Basically, we pay this ad agency a gazillion fuckin’ dollars to send out a gazillion fuckin’ mailers to whatever segment of the population that we’re targeting this week,” he had replied while smoking away on his fourth cigarette of the morning outside the door to the repair shop. He coughed in a way that made me concerned for his health, then flicked his cigarette into the nearby sewer grate. “Normally we do a bunch of special finance bullshit that we don’t make a fuckin’ dime on. They come in with a bunch of balloons and hot dogs and a big sales board. Every time we sell a car, we have to go to them and report it. They ring some big fuckin’ bell and shout your name out and high-five each other. Christ.”

I knew what cars we’d be trying to push that day—it was going to be the day we got rid of the remaining 2013 Dodge Avengers. The special finance companies LOVED them. We could get just about any roach on the lot approved for an Avenger. Just prove that you make $1000 a month and you can walk away with a 72 month term and a $379 payment. Don’t do the math on that. It will make you die a little inside.

Jimmy and I snuck into the back of the big conference room, taking a seat at the last table, right in front of the boxes of donuts and the carafes of coffe. Sure enough, there was David, dressed in a suit that probably cost more than I was gonna make in three months at the dealership, pacing back and forth like a caged panther at the front. Every new car salesman from all eleven rooftops was in the room. There were easily over a hundred of us, mostly young and out of shape men, wearing whatever wrinkled polo shirt was approved at their respective rooftop. A few women, but not many—it was tough for a woman to make it in that environment. Sexual harassment was the rule, not the exception.

New Car sales is where they stuck all the newbies—everybody knew that the money was in Used Cars, but you had to prove your worth on the New Car side before they would let you sell Used. I really wished that I had been hired at one of the import stores. Honda, Toyota, Nissan…Lexus would have been nice, but there was nobody there under forty. But I was so eager to get started that I would have taken a job mopping the floors. Which, ironically, would have paid more money than I had made so far.

“Who’s ready to sell some CARS today?” David screamed at the top of this lungs. The GMs and the New Car managers whooped in excitement, and clapped along. I looked at Jimmy. He barely registered a pulse.

“Come on, Nelson Automotive! LET ME HEAR YOU!” David was clapping rhythmically, staring at each one of us in turn to ensure we had the spirit, or something like that. Fuck. I hated rah-rah shit like this. But, I hadn’t earned the right to NOT be rah-rah yet. So, much to Jimmy’s amusement, I started clapping right along with him.

“Now, let me tell you how today is gonna work, for you rookies. We sent a shit ton of postcards out to credit challenged customers. Each one of ’em has a key attached to it that could “potentially” win a new Chrysler 300.” All of the more veteran sales guys laughed at this. Apparently nobody would be winning a new car that day.

“We’re gonna make them all stop at the welcome center and fill out a quick credit app if they wanna have a shot to win the car. When we run them, we’re gonna hand them back their key and a Nelson Automotive balloon. If they have a beacon score below 570, they get a red balloon. 570 to 660 gets a yellow balloon. 660+ gets a green balloon. They’ll have to carry the balloon around with them in order to get a sales appointment.”

I poked Jimmy.

“What is it?” he whispered.

“Is he fucking serious?” I whispered back. “You can’t do that!”

“As a heart attack,” Jimmy replied, followed by a coughing spasm.

David had continued on. “Rookies, you get the red balloons. These are the special finance customers. Try to push them to an Avenger or a 200. Write up the foursquare so that it focuses on the payment. Do NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, mention the 24.99% APR. Got it?”

He continued to talk about how much the sale had cost him, and how many cars we were going to have to sell to break even. It was a LOT. The sale had apparently cost the dealership group over fifty grand, and each rooftop was going to be billed for its part if we didn’t make our goal. I didn’t know exactly what that meant to me or my paycheck, but I assumed that it wasn’t good.

I have to admit, I wasn’t too focused on the gypsy sale. You see, I had an appointment coming in that day. I had been given a lead by the Internet department earlier in the week on a Chrysler Town and Country Limited. The name was Tom Nestor—sounded like a solid name. He had come in as a Black Book lead, looking to trade in a 2011 328i. Said he was finishing up a 36 month lease with BMW Financial, so I knew he’d be a good credit score. Plus, the model he was looking at had about $2500 of gross front end profit on it, so it promised to be a good payday for me. That was all I needed…just one to get me started. I knew that once I sold my first car, I’d be off and running.

Jimmy and I took a golf cart back over to the CDJR store. “You gotta pop your sales cherry today, Logan,” he bleated. “You know, bend that bitch over and—”

“I got it, Jimmy.” Subtlety was not his forte.

When we got back to the store, there was a big yellow board in the back room with all of our names on it, just like David had said. My target for the day was 3 cars, and if I hit it, I got some bullshit ticket for a drawing for a trip to Puerto Rico. If I had won a trip to Puerto Rico, all I would have been able to afford to do would have been sit by the pool and drink free water. I needed cash, not prizes.

The sale started slowly. Jimmy got a green balloon for his first up, a young guy looking at a Challenger R/T, but the kid was armed to the gills with information.

“Kid’s gonna get this car for invoice minus holdback,” Jimmy complained to me outside after the customer went into the F&I office. “Another fucking mini deal for me.” He flicked another cigarette into the drain. “The kid has gold balls for credit, too. Here’s hoping he needs gap insurance.”

“I’d take a mini at this point,” I replied. I’d had three red balloons, but there were obviously just there to try to win the car. After their keys miraculously failed to start the 300, they had bolted.

But just then, I heard one of the most wonderful sounds to ever bounce around in my ear. Our hot little receptionist, Christina, whom everybody had (unsuccessfully) tried to tag, spoke words that she had never spoken before.

“Logan Brookline, please come to the New Car showroom. You have a customer waiting for you. Logan Brookline to the New Car showroom.”

Yes! My T&C customer. I maneuvered back to the showroom as quickly as I could without seeming too anxious, my heart racing. Finally, my chance to prove myself.

I saw a set of “ups” near the sales tower when I arrived—a well-dressed but unattractive man, maybe in his early forties, and a younger woman, closer to thirty, but desperately trying to look twenty-two. Tight jeans, severe make-up, and big blonde hair, she had the look of a former Southern Belle. Dancing a perfect circle around the two of them was a girl of maybe seven, skipping and prancing as she clung to her new favorite possession—a string that was tied neatly around her wrist at one end, and to a red balloon at the other.

I politely excused myself as I squeezed past them up to the tower. My sales manager sat there, penciling deals furiously with his glasses halfway down his pointed nose.

“Hey, Todd,” I said to him. “Have you seen my T&C customers? I got paged that they were here.”

He looked up at me and pointed directly behind me. “There they are. The credit criminal with the pageant queen girlfriend and her kid.”

Shit. You’ve gotta be kidding me, I thought. I walked back toward them and introduced myself.

“Tom?” I asked, hoping and praying that it wasn’t him.

“Yeah,” he smiled back at me, extending his hand. “This is Jackie,” gesturing towards the blonde, who smiled thinly and shook my hand, “and here’s the reason we need that new van, our princess, Keely.” The little girl didn’t stop her dance long enough to acknowledge me, still twirling around and singing her favorite Disney princess song. She was a dead ringer for her mom, right down to the hair and makeup.

“It’s getting more and more difficult for us to take Keely and all of her friends around to ballet, soccer, and gymnastics in the little Beemer, so we figured it was time to upgrade—and by upgrade, I really mean downgrade for me, hahaha. But she’s worth it.” He smiled warmly at his wife and daughter. Jackie gave him a sharp look and then returned to her iPhone.

“I’m sure she is, sir.” They had to have gotten this guy wrong at the welcome center. There’s just no way he had pulled under a 570 FICO score. “Let’s go drive that beautiful vehicle.” I quickly made a copy of his drivers license and grabbed the keys to the only T&C Limited we had.

We took one of the golf carts out on the lot, stopping by their car to grab Keely’s booster seat. I had been expecting to see a 328i, but instead we had stopped at an early 2000s V6 Mustang, white with a cracked air dam. “We brought Jackie’s car,” explained Tom. “She’s getting tired of moving the seat forward to get Keely in and out.” Things were starting to get weird. Why was she driving this old foxbody if he had a BMW?

Upon arrival at the Chrysler, I pointed out all the things that I had learned from poring over the brochure the night before. “It has class-leading luxury, sir. It has won the JD Power award for thirteen years in a row. It’s simply the best van on the market.” Do you know how tough it is to feign some sort of excitement for a minivan when you’re twenty years old?

“Honey,” said Tom, looking in Jackie’s direction, “what do you think of it?”

She looked genuinely disgusted. “It’s white. Like refrigerator white. Miranda’s is called True Blue.”
He looked back at me. “Do you have any blue ones?”

She snapped at him. “I don’t want the same fucking color she has. Christ. But I certainly don’t want white.”

I stood, rooted to the spot in my Bass shoes, waiting for somebody to speak. Finally, I decided to break the silence.

“Ma’am, if you decide that you like the van, we can do what’s called a dealer trade to go get one for you in whatever color you like.”

“Fine,” she said, and she buried her eyes back into her phone, returning to her previous state of disinterest.

Tom laughed uneasily. I laughed back, because that’s what you do when your customer laughs. I handed him the keys, helped Keely into the second-row captain’s chair with her booster, and waved them goodbye as they went on their test drive. “Take your time, guys!”

I drove the golf cart as quickly as it would go back to the showroom, hoping to find that I was right about Tom’s credit score. I ran back to the F&I office and banged open the door. All three of our finance managers were working that day, furiously working the phones.

“I need Tom Nestor’s credit report, please.” One of them handed it to me from the stack of papers on the desk without even looking up. Unreal. It was a 520. Bankruptcy two years ago. Well, so much for my sale.

I went back outside and waited for them to return. Nothing to do but kick the gravel around and wait. It really made me wish that I smoked like all the other sales guys. Maybe I could start.

I greeted them when they pulled back onto the lot. “It’s quite a vehicle, huh?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Tom as he exited the drivers’ side door. “Very smooth. Keely loved the DVD player in the back, didn’t you, honey?” She didn’t acknowledge him as she danced out of the car, singing and twirling. “I think it’s safe to say we’re interested in it. Let’s work some numbers, shall we?”

“Well, how much money were you planning to put down?” I asked, hoping and praying he was going to say something that sounded like he was a cash buyer.

“None. I saw that you have 1.9% financing over sixty months. I think I’d like to do that.”

“Well, that’s for very well-qualified buyers, sir. Let’s go sit at my desk.”

I led them through the showroom to my cubicle at the very back. Every other salesperson had awards, photos, decorations. I had a bobblehead from a Cincinnati Reds game three years ago. I was trying to think of some way I could sell them that van. There was no bank in America that would make him a $45,000 loan.
“Sit down, guys. Keely, honey, there’s a children’s play area over there.” I pointed her to our kids’ area. It was more designed for preschoolers, but whatever. I needed her out of there. She skipped over and started playing at the train table.

I took a deep breath and started talking.

“Tom, Jackie, listen,” I began. “We’re running into a snag with the financing. Your credit score is what we call ‘sub-prime.’ I’ve asked my finance managers to try to secure financing for you but we’ve been unsuccessful in finding a bank that is willing to finance you on that vehicle.”

I have never seen someone snap so hard and so quickly as Jackie did at that moment. “Jesus, Tom. We need that fucking van! Do something.” She got up and stormed over to the play area.

Tom folded his hands meekly in his lap, averting his eyes away from mine. He spoke softly.

“I went through a bad divorce a little bit over two years ago. Jackie had been my assistant at work. My wife caught us having an affair. She asked me for a divorce…well, first she ran up all of my credit cards. Then she asked me for a divorce.”

He continued to talk as he stared out of the window. “Keely is her daughter, not mine. I’ve asked to adopt her…she says that Keely needs time. I don’t know. I wanted to get her this van. I thought it might help. She quit working when we got married, but between the alimony payments and my debt…” He stopped talking.

I really wanted to help this guy. “We could look at a Caravan. We have some models that start right around twenty grand, and we have some special financing available.”

He stood up and extended his hand. “I don’t think that’s going to work out. She really wanted the Town and Country. All the women in the neighborhood have one, or something like it.” I shook his hand, and my only potential sale of the day walked away.

I stood and watched as they walked back to the Mustang, his hands in his pockets, her wild gesticulations accompanied by vocal berating that was silenced by the showroom glass between us. Keely, still clinging to her favorite red balloon as she skipped back to the car.

Jimmy walked into my cube, sipping on his coffee mug. “You walked them?? What the hell, buddy? You ever planning on selling a car here?”

I looked him up and down. His slick hair, his greasy skin, his sagging belly.

“No, I’m not. Tell David I quit.”

I shoved my way past him, tossed my name tag on the desk, and headed toward the front door.

“Where are you going?” cooed Christina from her perch at the receptionist’s desk.

As I looked back toward her, I took in the entire scene. Balloons everywhere. Eighties music blaring. Fluorescent light beating down. Grown men screaming at each other.

“To find my dignity. I hope.”

21 Replies to “Rewind: “99 Red Balloons””

  1. Avatar-Nate

    A sad if true story .

    I sold the living hell out of used cars at my shop for decades ~ mostly they sell them selves .

    -Nate

    Reply
    • Avatareverybodyhatesscott

      I have a friend that was in the new car business. The story’s of his “Best days” were screwing someone over. Yeah, there’s the internet and more research than has ever been available at customers fingertips but if my livelihood depended on screwing people over, I’d probably be overweight, smoke and drink too much too.

      Reply
      • AvatarJustPassinThru

        I think a lot depends on lifestyle.

        The salesman’s lifestyle. Now…I’ll preface this by saying I’ve never been in auto sales. BUT. I have worked high-paying-but-sporadic jobs for decades; and the key to being able to sleep nights is, MINIMALISM. Keep your own overhead low. So when the BS becomes unpalatable, you can do the Johnny Paycheck number instead of seppiku.

        Which, also, is why I would never be selling new cars. Today’s “Sales Managers” seem to want HUNGRY guys. Well, I differ, there – selling an expensive car to someone who cannot afford it, does no one any good. The car is repossessed and re-enters the food chain as a lightly-used alternative for someone else. A potential future sale killed. The victim becomes a credit-criminal, and will NOT be buying one once he recovers from this one. Bad feelings; and then, depending on customer’s temperment, letters to his Congress-cretin, and more laws against “Predatory Lending.” Which is BS as an accusation, but the spectre of crushing regulation is real.

        I would guess there’s two kinds of customers coming in. First, those who need or want the car, with reasons and with an idea of how to pay for it; and second, those engaging in fantasy. And the fantasy buyers do little for themselves or the auto market. And all they do for the dealership is make one mark, each, for the monthly sales tally.

        Balance that against the hard feelings for the business, in general and towards that business, that large numbers of foolish sales generate.

        The OP will tell me I’m living in a fantasy world, and that’s true. But not fantastic fantasy. Practical fantasy. Point of fact, back in the day, this is how VW Beetles were sold. Low-key, to people who knew what they were buying.

        Reply
        • AvatarCJinSD

          “The victim becomes a credit-criminal, and will NOT be buying one once he recovers from this one.”

          I can’t agree with this statement. There are people who only care about what they want, and there are lawmakers who cater to them. There are people telling these people that the money they borrowed was never real money in the first place. Besides, the less time they had their first luxury car, the better their memories of what it did for them will be.

          Reply
  2. Avatartime flies

    mostly everybody involved with this site has forgotten more about cars than I know but I believe the last foxbody came out in 93.

    Reply
  3. AvatarCJinSD

    I sold cars the summer after my first year of college. It was a crash course in cynicism. I’m not sure if everyone should sell cars once in their life, or if nobody should ever sell cars.

    I have the perception that people talk about the misery of car shopping more than they bemoan the unpleasantness of any other purchasing experiences. Is that just because I pay more attention to conversations involving cars, or is their some truth to it? I’m in the process of furnishing a new place, and I must say that buying furniture is more fraught with rackets than auto sales are. I suppose the stakes are generally smaller, but the fact is that I found my dining room set priced at three times what I paid for it a few hours later. I had very particular requirements for the dining space of my condo. Almost nothing that wouldn’t be custom constructed would have been right. I looked at dozens of tables, and it seemed that I was doomed to eating at my bar when it was too nasty to use the balcony. Finally, I found a 66 inch diameter, counter height table for $1749 + $90 delivery. It was even a good match for the various trims chosen by the previous owner of the condo.

    I got a bad vibe when the salesman offered me zero percent financing. I told him I wasn’t interested in financing, and suddenly the price went down by 35%. I took pictures of the model numbers and went home to think about it because I wanted a table now and they couldn’t deliver for at least three weeks. At this point, I stuck the Ashley Furniture model numbers into a search engine. I bought the table through Amazon for $416. Four of the chairs from Target.com were $215. Those prices include any delivery charges and sales taxes.

    A new 2013 Avenger for 72 monthly payments of $379 plus a grand down amounts to less than 100% in total finance charges/idiot taxes. Had I paid $1840 for my dining room set delivered, I’d have coughed up 200% in exchange for a bad decision. I still need a desk and an A/V stand. I’m just burned out after buying a couple new beds, dresser, night table, and having a sofa built.

    Reply
    • AvatarJustPassinThru

      What you are describing, is the over-borrowing, under-morally-guided, America of 2019. There are no limits, anymore – nothing is wrong, nothing is forbidden, and truth, honesty and integrity have no value. Social or otherwise.

      It makes it hard to function in a modern society. And it’s more than JUST buying or selling – search “Road Rage” on the Toob of Yoob. You see some incredible schitt happening, and only saved because a small minority of drivers have dash-cams.

      There is no solution that can be offered on such a blog. Education and willingness to defer, is the only defense – that, and setting your limits on your credit and what you’ll tolerate. I have my limits – none. With a small pension income, I owe nobody NOTHING. Credit cards are just for traveling – and are paid off in full each month. My car, old and sad as it is, is a good runner – and thus a good value.

      You did the web-search. I do that, but also Goodwill and other secondhand stores. Here in a college town in the mountains, it’s amazing what the kids will throw out rather than move when they leave.

      Reply
      • AvatarRick T.

        We’ve pretty much furnished an entire house from estate sales. I’m not talking junk, either. Our bedroom suite is Ethan Allen and dining room set Henrendon, all almost new purchased form ten cents on the dollar. It takes some time but you do the math on a $20k dining room set for saving money versus time spent.

        Reply
    • AvatarJMcG

      I was always told that furniture and diamonds are the biggest rackets in the world. I always feel bad for the folks selling furniture and cars, jewelry people aren’t very sympathetic somehow.

      Reply
      • AvatarKen

        Yeah I’m living that now, attempting to furnish a new (to the fam) home. I find Amish made to be one of the better values. Great workmanship, local, custom, and fairly priced. While they are great for wood pieces, my main issue is finding seating.

        Well made, american made, sofa’s and sectionals are ridiculously priced new.

        Reply
  4. AvatarJohn C.

    I miss that generation Avenger/200. American designed and built, economical 15k four cylinders and 20k zippy V6 pentastars. Distinctive looking and good sized for a family car. Wonder what it cost to do that Fiat based later one that was too complex and didn’t sell till they canned it, wrote off the investment, and then sold them forever at about the same price as the original. New isn’t always better.

    Reply
  5. AvatarScottS

    Selling new cars has to be one of the slimiest business ever.

    As a dealership owner once told me, “In the car business, you have to fuck your friends because your enemies won’t do business with you”.

    Check your dignity at the door!

    Reply
  6. AvatarPatrick King

    Funny stuff, Bark. And timely, given that I’ll be visiting a new car dealership tomorrow morning for the first time since 1994. And just like then, it’s a VW store! What polyester fun awaits!

    Reply
    • AvatarShortest Circuit

      That’s new cars though. I wonder if anyone ever did a story about the used car side of the business which is much much shadier. You experience personal tragedies more often there. I never knew what makes people open up to perfect strangers about their privatest of private lives… and it makes me work hard so I’ll never know.

      Reply

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