How About a Manicure With That Car?

Dealers Try Innovative Techniques From Airport Shuttles to Green Initiatives to Lure and Keep Customers

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Smart auto dealers are getting creative to hold on to current customers and attract new ones, whether it's offering free shuttles to the airport, casting a wider net online or putting on an environmentally friendly face.
A Lexus dealership in Santa Monica offers free manicures in its service department.
A Lexus dealership in Santa Monica offers free manicures in its service department.

Mike Sullivan, who owns Volkswagen, Audi, Toyota, Lexus and Porsche dealerships in Southern California, started offering Lexus owners at his Santa Monica dealership free manicures on Tuesdays and Thursdays in his service department. "Now that people know about it, my service bays are jumping on Tuesdays and Thursdays," he said.

About two months ago, he hired his first corporatewide manager of the environment. The manager recently attended a Los Angeles green-builders show, representing the only auto dealership there. Part of her job is to train and educate employees on ways to save energy personally and for the dealerships. She has started recycling programs for cellphones and small electronics with boxes and signs in the dealerships for staffers and customers. Mr. Sullivan said his dealerships have also dropped paper and Styrofoam cups in favor of glass.

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"We are living what we talk about," said Mr. Sullivan, who added that while "we promote it subtly," he has no plans to advertise these green efforts.

Then there are dealers offering out-of-the-box service initiatives. Fletcher-Jones Imports in Las Vegas, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, shuttles customers to the airport so they can leave their cars for service while they're traveling. "We're a one-of-a-kind store," said General Manager Bernie Schiappa.

Shop from home
Some dealers have implemented programs where the buyer barely needs to set foot in the establishment.

Lithia Motors, a publicly traded dealership group marketing new and used vehicles, started its L2 Auto division last summer to sell and service certified used cars and trucks via a simple, mostly online process at l2auto.com. Lithia, which promoted L2 with extensive search-engine marketing and traditional ads, has four L2 dealerships, in Loveland, Colo., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Lubbock and Amarillo, Texas.

L2 also buys used cars via the Sell 2 L2 area of its site; sellers are not required to buy a car from L2 in exchange. L2 promises negotiation-free pricing for used-car purchases, no added fees, a 240-point inspection, a 60-day warranty and a three-day return policy.

L2 allows buyers to use their credit cards for an online deposit. Robert Sacks, director-community relations of L2, said as far as he knows, no other dealer does that. "You could do the entire thing from your sofa," he said, although most people want to come in to see and test-drive the vehicle. "People seem to like the idea; it's so much more customer-friendly."

He said Lithia plans to open more L2 stores this year.

Pre-selling the Camaro
Courtesy Chevrolet started up a microsite, 2010camaroorder.com, about a month ago to collect prospects interested in buying the iconic Camaro when it returns next year after a six-year hiatus.

The Phoenix dealership's microsite generated six orders in the first week without any ads, said Scott Gruwell, the son of dealer William Gruwell and new-car director.
Internet pioneer: Courtesy Chevrolet was one of the first U.S. dealerships to set up an online department. Now, about 40% of its new- and used-vehicle sales come from the web.
Internet pioneer: Courtesy Chevrolet was one of the first U.S. dealerships to set up an online department. Now, about 40% of its new- and used-vehicle sales come from the web.

Courtesy Chevrolet is an internet pioneer. It was one of the first U.S. dealerships to set up an online department. That was 12 years ago.

In 2005, the retailer jumped into the fast lane, buying about 25 URLs. Since then, it has accelerated to 650 different URLs that drive leads, traffic and sales to the dealership. Courtesy has a slew of Hispanic-targeted microsites as well, such as latinochevy.com.

The online department has 22 staffers and four managers. Roughly 40% of Courtesy Chevrolet's monthly new- and used-vehicle sales come from the internet, translating to about 150 units a month, the younger Mr. Gruwell said.

Text messaging, online chat
It's been so successful that Courtesy stopped advertising in newspapers four years ago. Although the outfit's online-ad budget has grown along with the sales generated via its internet marketing, spending offline is higher due to the cost of TV.

Four months ago, the dealership made another bold move by adding 24-7 live online chats. Mr. Gruwell said Courtesy hired an outside specialist to handle those inquiries, which are passed along to inside salespeople the next day. A year ago, the dealer added text messaging for prospects so salespeople could jump on leads faster.

"We had such a head start, but now everyone is catching up," said Mr. Gruwell. "We have to persevere and come up with new ideas."

Courtesy uses Phoenix agency Think Tank for its online-ad strategy and for offline ads. Think Tank is working on a rebranding strategy for the dealership, said Mr. Gruwell.

The dealership's online moves helped catapult it to the largest Chevy dealer in the nation in 2005, a place it has held every year since then. "It's definitely the way the business is going," Mr. Gruwell said. "It's the way of the future."
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