Monday, August 31, 2009

A Sea Change in the Way Cars Are Sold?

The dictionary defines a sea change as “a striking change, as in appearance, often for the better.” A lot of economists and other experts have speculated that we are experiencing a sea change in America, or even globally, as a result of this worst recession since the Great Depression. The experts are saying that Americans will never again spend as much or save as little as they have. Because so many of us have lost our jobs, had our homes foreclosed on and cars repossessed and have seen our 401K’s cut in half we will never be the same.

Nobody disputes the fact that the Great Depression caused a sea change, at least in that generation who lived in it. Those of you who were old enough to remember the thirties will vouch for that. I was born in 1940 but my father was born in 1892. He was a young man during the thirties and those years changed him for the rest of his life. Even though he was a relatively wealthy and successful Pontiac dealer, he saved and spent his money as if he might be looking for a job tomorrow. As a child, I can remember my mother admonishing him for wearing his shirts and his pants for too many days. He didn’t want to spend the money to send them to the cleaners. A lot of my Dad rubbed off on me and I still can’t stand to throw anything away. My wife, Nancy, has to cajole me to donate shoes or clothes that don’t fit me anymore to Goodwill or other charities.

Last Friday, I was honored to be invited to an interview at the Palm Beach Post. Charles Passy, one of their oldest and best reporters, invited several local business owners and I was the one representing car dealers. It was Charles’ interview that gave me the idea for this column. The purpose of this interview was to learn what local businesses had experienced with their customers and employees that might suggest a sea change in saving and purchasing habits. You can read what everybody had to say in this Sunday’s, September 6, PB Post.

I agree that we are experiencing a sea change but one that is quite different from the one of the Great Depression. This time in addition to Americans being traumatized by the loss of their jobs, homes and retirement, they are traumatized by their loss of trust. Just a short while ago, insurance companies and banks were considered among the most trustworthy of institutions, but no longer. Wall Street and their government regulators are among the least trusted also. Trust in the media and politicians are at an all time low. Americans don’t know where to turn to invest or save their money. Just recently, Americans were so afraid of putting their money in a bank or any place else except the U.S. Government that they actually paid the government interest on treasury notes to keep their money safe.

The recent government incentive program, “cash for clunkers” is evidence of the lack of trust that car-buyers have for car dealers. Read car ads or watch them on TV and every day you will see offers of savings that exceed the savings of “cash for clunkers”. But when car buyers heard it from a trusted source, the United States government, they came in and bought cars in record numbers. August is the best auto sales month since January 2007 and it has occurred in the middle of the biggest recession since the Great Depression. In my Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach, I shattered my old record of 404 new Toyotas. I’m writing this column on Monday, August 31, and it looks like we will sell about 500 new Toyotas in August.

As many of you know, I practically never advertise prices. This is simply because most other dealers advertise prices less than what they are actually willing to sell the car for…often times below their actually cost. If I advertise a car for an honest price, mine will appear higher in comparison.

More evidence of this sea change of Americans gravitating to invest, save, and spend their money only with those whom they can trust is my rapidly expanding market share. I outsell my two nearest Toyota dealer competitors to the south of me combined. I outsell the three nearest Toyota dealers to the north of me combined. I outsell Ed Morse Delray Toyota by a large margin even though he is in a population area three times the size of Lake Park/North Palm Beach. I outsell all the Toyota dealers in the Orlando, Tampa, and Atlanta markets. I also outsell most of the Toyota dealerships in the Ft. Lauderdale-Miami markets. I am the 5th or 6th largest seller of Toyotas in the Southeast USA. I use only Toyota for comparison, because Toyota is the number one retailer and I obviously outsell all of the other makes.

I’ll probably take a lot of flak for bragging about how many cars I sell. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it feels good to be #1. However, I believe my unparalleled success is good news for car buyers, even those who don’t buy Toyotas. Auto retailers everywhere are watching Earl Stewart Toyota and trying to figure out how we do it. If they figure it out, they too can match or exceed my success. And if they do, you, the car buyers of America will benefit as well.

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