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Kicking the tires or just browsing

(Editor's note: Lynn Hummel is on vacation this week. This article was originally published in 2006.)

In the auto sales business it is well known that there are three categories of customers coming in to look at the cars: buyers, serious shoppers and tire kickers.

The buyers look and buy, the serious shoppers look and probably will buy somewhere eventually, and the tire kickers, well -- they talk, ask questions, cite statistics, compare, speculate, wonder, hesitate, procrastinate, stall, delay, wait, dream and yes, they kick tires.

Later they'll return and go through the same routine with the same ending: no sale.

Years ago I was a tourist in Norway with some extra time on my hands. I walked into a very nice men's store and looked at some very expensive suits. They were beautiful, but I wasn't there to buy a suit and I certainly wouldn't have spent what they were charging.

While I was looking, an attractive clerk came over and asked me in English if she could help. "I'm just browsing," I answered. "Browsing?" she asked. "What is browsing?" I tried to explain, but what finally came through was that I was just kicking tires and hoping not to waste anybody's time but my own.

You may think that tire kickers operate only at car dealerships and used car lots or where they sell boats, snowmobiles, airplanes, tractors or men's suits. Wrong. In the field of romance, for example, there are tire kickers by the thousands. So if somebody has been calling you his or her fiancé for more than three years, you're not really engaged, you're dating a tire kicker. Or if you're both doing the same thing, you're both tire kickers.

Now if somebody of the opposite sex invites you to move in with him or her, how can you tell if you're getting a serious proposition or a kick in the tires? An example of a very serious proposition would be: "Let's get married next June." But many "let's live together" propositions are about as serious as the guy who says he looking to buy a car who just rents a nice model for a week. He's looking for an exciting short spin and he's a tire kicker of the worst kind.

If celebrity match-ups are what they appear to be in the media, whether they live together or get married really doesn't matter -- they're all tire kickers. And having a baby or two doesn't make any difference -- they hop, skip and jump from bed to bed. If that sounds too square for you, you should be reading People magazine and not this column.

Folks kick tires in their employment too. Their jobs are just temporary jobs. This is done all they way from the CEO level at the top to the lowest job in the company. No job is perfect, no boss appreciative enough and no pay is satisfactory, so we move on every couple of years. The grass is always greener somewhere else. The more jobs we list on our resumes, the more tire kicking we've been doing.

The people in the business of investing money for others know all about tire kickers too. These kickers read all the reports, review the charts, know the ratios, study the winners, ask a lot of questions, already know most of the answers and can almost taste a huge killing, but they can't pull the trigger. They just don't have the stomach for serious risk. But they keep making the rounds, keep in touch and keep not committing.

Talk to people who are trying to sell their homes -- either through realtors or on their own. There are folks who have been looking at homes for years. An open house is not an opportunity to shop for that house they say they've been looking for; it's an afternoon of sightseeing. The realtors know who these folks are, but the homeowners don't. But they're really not doing any harm except wasting somebody's time while satisfying their own curiosities.

So what's the bottom line with tire kickers like me? Well, even we kickers have homes, cars and hopefully a nest egg, so be patient with us. Eventually we may buy something, so what's the harm in going along with us? Courtesy and patience often sell.

But you don't want to hire an employee tire kicker or depend on one as your co-worker. They'll be gone just after they get really good at their jobs and leave you holding the bag. It can be argued that some people just have short attention spans. Or if you could look at it another way, you might say it looks like they have short commitment spans.

And the short commitment span leads us to the tire kickers in the field of romance. There are a few lines on point in the old folk song, "On Top of Old Smokey"...

A false hearted lover

is worse than a thief.

For a thief will just rob you

and take what you have,

but a false hearted lover

will lead you to the grave.

In the game of love, the name of the game is commitment. Don't move in without it.