AUTO MARKETING: CHAINS LOOK TO LEVERAGE THEIR BRANDS' EQUITIES: AS REPUTATIONS SPREAD, LOCAL SELLERS FACE UPHILL BATTLE

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Ashby underwood knew she wanted a Toyota 4Runner. But the salesman at the Richmond, Va., Toyota dealership shot that down with a withering glance, says Ms. Underwood, 24.

Her experience at the nearby CarMax was quite different. She was greeted by a saleswoman who, through a computer search of the retailer's entire 5,000-plus car inventory, found a 4Runner in Atlanta.

'COMPLETELY PAINLESS'

"It was completely painless," says Ms. Underwood. "I bought it in less than two hours and had my car in three days from another state."

The emerging used-car superstores, such as Circuit City Stores' CarMax, Republic Industries' AutoNation USA and J.D. Byrider Systems, hope to establish shopping experiences such as Ms. Underwood's as their signature.

As American used-car buyers become familiar with the characteristics these retailers' brand names represent, local used-auto retailers face an uphill battle.

10 YEARS OF CHANGE

"It all centers around the shopping experience," says Edwin Underwood, Ashby's father and automotive analyst for Scott & Stringfellow. "These new superstores will force the entire method of selling new and used cars to change in the next 10 years."

"Brands will be especially attractive for anyone who's intimidated or uncomfortable with the used-car buying process, which is a growing share of car buyers," says Cheryl Russell, editor of The Boomer Report.

Ms. Russell expects women, the young, many minorities and lower income groups to be especially receptive to the known quantity of brand-name retailers.

"Many people feel they're somehow being duped when buying a used car," Ms. Russell says. "They'd much rather go to someplace that makes them feel good about themselves."

Major local dealers say they welcome the entry of the superstores because the additional advertising stirs up the marketplace. They say the superstores' no-haggle pricing will work against them with price-motivated consumers who like to feel they're getting a better deal than the next guy.

"People who want a better price will find no shortage of other people in the market willing to offer one," says Ed Wesche, general manager of John L. Sullivan Chevrolet-Geo, the biggest car dealer in Sacramento, Calif.

There may be some truth in that.

"Well-educated, affluent baby boomers might feel they have enough information to approach a car dealer from the position of power," Ms. Russell says.

MOBILE POPULATION

Large local dealerships consider themselves to be brands in their own right after years of local advertising. But the value of long-term reputation might be lessening as the population becomes more mobile, says Mike Flynn, associate director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

"The real problem is that 20% of the population moves every year," he says. "There's a certain comfort in moving to someplace new and finding the same stores as back home."

Analysts say the superstore brand concept is likely to work best with the oldest used cars. Up to 70% of the cars that change hands every year are between 5 and 10 years old and 30% are between 1 and 4 years old.

"The more uncertain I am about a purchase, the more advantage there is for a national brand retailer," Mr. Flynn says.

CAPITALIZED ON KNOWLEDGE

Chains such as J.D. Byrider have capitalized on this knowledge by targeting older car buyers with credit problems. W. Steele Gudal, Byrider's chief operating officer, calls his 85-location company the Motel 6 of the used-car business.

"AutoNation and CarMax are the Hiltons and the Holiday Inns," he says.

J.D. Byrider will not only sell and finance a car for anyone with a $199 down payment, but its sales reps also counsel buyers on budget issues.

"Our cars are priced a little higher, but it's the same concept as Jiffy Lube. They're never going to get the service they get here from the competition," Mr. Gudal says.

The company is blanketing select TV markets with a new campaign from Pearson Crahan Fletcher England, Indianapolis, and the J.D. Byrider jingle, "You get the credit! You get the car!"

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