The Anatomy of a Hybrid Waiting List

It was the middle of January in 2004, and Marlene and Gary Ball wanted a Prius. As long-time Toyota customers they had taken the occasional look at the Prius, but found its first iteration simply too small for their needs. The next-generation Prius, with midsize room within a compact exterior, was just right. They gave a deposit to their local dealer and waited. And waited.

Periodically, the dealer would call with an update on their order, or details on a car that hadn’t been claimed by its previous buyer. These cars, invariably, had a color that wouldn’t work or equipment the Balls didn’t need. Finally, just over a year later they took delivery of a white Prius, giving them a chance to make an environmental statement (they drive some 7,500 miles a year) while running the errands typical of today’s active retiree.

Are hybrid shoppers still playing the same waiting game?

The Vagaries of the Showroom
Years later, the Prius—and to some extent, various other hybrids—is still hot. In a retail environment that, at its roots, all-too-often recalls its horse-trading origins, buying a car that is in both high demand and short supply remains a crap shoot, governed largely by greed. With the price pulse tool on this website, viewers can easily get an overview of the retail environment for hybrids. Within one metropolitan area, prices might vary by thousands of dollars, and delivery times may vary from one day to one year. You’ve done your research on the equipment and specs, but that won’t (necessarily) prepare you for the vagaries of the showroom. What should you expect?

Supply Varies by Location
In hybrids, the variables are driven by the supply available to the dealership, along with the demand in that particular area. We’ll make a few assumptions; there’s less interest in Toyota’s Prius in Scottsbluff, Nebraska than in Santa Monica, California. Scottsbluff is also served by fewer Toyota dealers. And Toyota’s distribution system has long favored those dealers turning big volumes. You sell the cars—you get more cars. It’s Automotive Darwinism at its best, where rule of the jungle is won by those with the biggest drum.

The best advice is to let your fingers do the walking. Call from dealer to dealer, until you find a dealer that’s high on the pecking order—and one that emphasizes customer satisfaction and repeat business.

Your Deposit Will Be Cashed
Regrettably, what should be a straightforward contract when placing a deposit can often become anything but straightforward. Your deposit will invariably be cashed—no real point in holding onto a check—and you’ll wait for the periodic updates. That info should come from your salesman, but in a six-month process that sales desk might be occupied by three salesmen; best to get the business card of the sales manager.

Orders Get Delayed or Lost
The business card of the guy or gal in charge, of course, still won’t guarantee consistent communication. That, in a nutshell, is what any customer is looking for, but in big city dealerships built on moving the metal, holding a customer’s hand isn’t the business model. If you’re embedded in this environment, you shouldn’t be surprised when your order gets delayed—or lost—in the retail shuffle.

Flexibility Helps. Sometimes.
Indicate upfront a second color choice or flexibility on options. If you have no flexibility, state that clearly in your buyer’s agreement. If you’ve been methodical in your decision, you have every reason to expect your dealer to be equally methodical in the delivery, but the distribution game—at this point—may not always cooperate.

Anything worth having—it’s been noted—is worth waiting for. And based on ownership experience, hybrids constitute one category that would easily confirm the adage. The wait may (or may not) be long, but the payoff begins with the first turn of the key, and will last for the life of the vehicle. In an age of instant gratification, the few weeks or months you wait make the ownership experience that much more rewarding. And while waiting, do what the hybrids do: Put your motor on pause.