AUTO MARKETING;BOOMERS FIRM: MAKE BUYING CARS FUN AGAIN;ALTERNATIVES FROM INTERNET TO SUPERSTORES AND KIOSKS EASE THE SHOPPING AGONY

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Baby boomers just want to have fun when they go shopping. Too frequently, shopping for a car has not been a joy.

They also want information, and lots of it. But 90% of the time they spend at traditional dealerships is devoted to haggling over price, according to industry wisdom, leaving precious little time to discuss the product itself.

Boomers' lives are incredibly busy, so they don't have lots of time to waste being dragged through those lengthy price negotiations. They want lease or purchase options tailored to their specific lifestyles.

When they make the second-biggest purchase of their lives after a home, boomers want to be treated like human beings.

In short, boomers don't want to be sold cars in the old way. Instead, they want to be in control of the buying process.

This restless generation, which has a habit of questioning and challenging everything, is bringing the retail revolution to that last bastion of traditionalism, the dealership showroom floor.

"When they walk in a showroom today, [boomers] don't expect someone with his tie undone, a toothpick in his mouth and a foot on the bumper saying, `Can I hep ya?" says Ray LaLone, president of Strong Automotive Merchandising, a Birmingham, Ala., ad agency serving 260 dealerships in 30 states.

But it would be a mistake to make any simple assumptions about the group. Boomers, according to Mark Thimmig, an automotive consultant at Coopers & Lybrand, are a mixed group, steeped in traditional retailing methods but willing to change.

HAGGLERS, BUT....

For example, boomers are divided on whether they want to haggle on prices.

An exclusive survey done by the research company Market Facts (see story on Page S-6) shows boomers still prefer to negotiate. Of the more than 524 Americans surveyed in this age group, 55.4% say they still prefer traditional price negotiations, while 39.7% say they would rather have a fixed price and not haggle.

Midwestern boomers like to negotiate more than their counterparts in other parts of the country-64.7% in that region of the country like to dicker.

"Very upscale boomers aggressively, actively enjoy the negotiation process," says Madelyn Hochstein, president and co-founder of DYG Inc., a consumer researcher.

But Ms. Hochstein predicts the number of boomers preferring to avoid haggling will grow, even in the upper-income professional ranks.

John Miller of Miller Brothers Chevrolet-Geo in Ellicott City, Md., a Baltimore suburb, made his commitment to no-haggle pricing in 1993 "after several years of soul searching and fear" as to whether the dealership could really pull it off.

"The rat race of negotiation was taking 45-50 minutes every hour," he says.

Luring more women to the dealership was one of Miller's goals in changing to a no-haggle system. Since going to a single price system, the number of women customers at Miller Brothers has nearly doubled, to about 50%.

PASSING BY

Boomers, said Ms. Hochstein, have developed a tendency to bypass the traditional dealer because the sales experience is unpleasant.

"Boomers like to reinvent everything they do," she says. "Dealers have to understand boomers invented bypass."

They've bypassed supermarkets in favor of warehouse stores, and they've bypassed traditional department stores for discount outlets, she says. And they're going to bypass traditional dealers in favor of new channels.

"New technologies are allowing the breakdown of the strong dealership system," she says.

Among those technologies are computer kiosks, now being used in used-car superstores, and the Internet. Computer kiosks can be placed in dealerships or shopping malls so customers can peruse the inventory by themselves.

KIOSKS GAIN FAVOR

The kiosks can be sponsored by a single manufacturer, such as the Plymouth Place concept now being tested in malls by Chrysler Corp., or by a group of regional dealers who pool their listings.

Some kiosks will allow Chrysler customers to complete virtually all financing themselves in a fraction of the time it took in the old finance and insurance department.

Used-car superstores like CarMax feature touch-screen computers that allow customers to look for specific cars on the lot by location.

Car America, a Wisconsin used-car superstore, has developed digitized videos to standardize its sales procedures so techniques don't vary from one salesperson to another. By touching the screen on Pentium-based computers located throughout the store, customers can call up the videos, which show actors explaining different parts of the sales process.

Car America does not even have a finance and insurance department, long the final and most dreaded stop in the traditional sales process.

The Internet allows customers to shop for cars without leaving their homes. Dealers are signing up with services like Auto-By-Tel, Autoweb Interactive, Autoscape, Autosite, MotorCity, Auto Row, DealerNet and AutoVantage, which provide information and referral services.

Many of the services are still in the development stage. But officials at DealerNet, an online service owned by Reynolds & Reynolds, believe the personal computer will play a role in 25% of all car-buying decisions within three years.

Bill Wink, president of the Greater Detroit Chevrolet Dealer Advertising Association, estimates it costs him $350 to get into the showroom via conventional advertising. By contrast, it costs him $100 for each customer he sells a car to through the Auto-By-Tel online service. That is because those Internet customers can't be reached via other local advertising media since the Internet offers a wider geographical area.

FUN, FUN, FUN

Jim Tindaro, president of AutoMarketing, a La Jolla, Calif. dealer ad agency, says the boomer generation is squeezed by the pressure of raising kids, caring for aging parents and managing careers.

"One of the things this generation is going to be looking for is fun," he says. "They haven't had a lot of fun, maybe since the '60s."

General Motors Corp.'s Saturn division has played a central role in popularizing new selling techniques.

Saturn retailers don't offer the usual rebates and incentives other dealers use, because their customers, primarily boomers and younger, don't respond to them.

When the redesigned 1996 Saturn models arrived last fall, North Houston Saturn invited customers to its Salon Shows, which featured hors d'oeuvres, champagne and a string quartet from the Houston Symphony, says Chris Levy, media director for North Houston, operator of three stores.

North Houston Saturn sent 11,000 invitations to a Feb. 24 barbecue, and 1,200 accepted, not a bad response rate at an auto dealership. The dealership invites a mix of Saturn owners and others.

"We get a tremendous amount of referral business," said Mr. Levy. "That's probably our strongest marketing tool we use for the baby boomer."

CHANGING THE DEAL

Driver's Mart, a recently opened used-car chain, wants to inject some fun by changing the way people own cars.

Driver's Mart founders are talking with finance companies about structuring new lease programs so customers could, for example, drive a sport utility in the winter and switch to a convertible in the summer.

Just because boomers are hitting the half-century mark doesn't they will change their taste or become fuddy duddies, says Mr. Tindaro.

"You can't assume that when somebody turns 50 they're going to jump into a Buick," he says. "This generation is going to go kicking and screaming into middle age."

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