When television icon Dick Clark passed away earlier this spring, there was a wave of nostalgia that swept through social media posts, television broadcasts and newspaper articles. What struck me most was, no matter how much the world around him changed, Dick Clark was always able to adapt. From the early ‘60s right up through New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 2012, Clark — his shows and his celebrity — always stayed relevant.
I think car dealers can learn a lot from Dick Clark, because in the auto industry, the only constant is change. Just as Clark adapted to the changing musical tastes and styles of one generation after another, car dealers need to adapt to changing vehicles and changing customer needs.
How have vehicle sales changed? From a broad sense, there are more competitors and more vehicle choices than ever before. When Dick Clark launched American Bandstand, there was very little (if any) competition in the market of television. The auto industry at that time was dominated by a small number of domestic manufacturers. Today, the television market is one of the largest and includes domestic and international programming. Similarly, today’s auto market is hotly contested by manufacturers, including brands from around the globe.
While some of these industry changes took place over a long period of time, others have happened seemingly overnight. Long-standing brands Pontiac, Saturn, Oldsmobile and Saab disappeared in the blink of an eye, and Hyundai has had a steady rise to prominence.
In addition to the industry changing, customers are changing, too. It’s well-documented that the baby boomers are graying. In fact, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. In 1983, more than half of all drivers were under the age of 40. Today, less than 40 percent of drivers are under the age of 40.
Some of the youngest potential customers don’t make vehicles and driving as high a priority as customers in the past. In the 20 to 24 age group, 92 percent had a driver’s license in 1983. Twenty-five years later, only 82 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds had a driver’s license.
These are broad demographic changes that happened quickly, but some changes can occur quickly at a local level, as well. For example, Las Vegas, a real estate boom town only 10 years ago, is now considered the epicenter of real-estate foreclosures and as of April, has an unemployment rate of 12.2 percent, well above the national average.
Forward-thinking car dealers need to constantly ask how their market has changed in the last 10 years, five years or even one year. Is the customer base getting older or younger? Are customer preferences changing, and is the dealership vehicle mix meeting these changes? How have customer media habits changed, and are the dealership’s marketing and advertising plans keeping pace with these changes?
There are a few steps that can help dealers be proactive and gain significant advantages on their competitors, especially those that keep working with the older approaches.
- Understand your marketplace — Has your marketplace changed, and have you kept up with it? Do you have an up-to-date understanding of the area you serve, the people and their preferences? Are customers coming just from a select few ZIP® codes, or are you drawing customers from adjoining cities? Are your closest competitors drawing customers from neighboring ZIP codes? Constantly mining sales data in your market can show where there might be untapped sources of customers.
- Compare your customers to the overall demographics of your markets — Are your customers a good representative of the market or are they not? If they are not, you might be focusing on too narrow a subset of customers in your market.
- Target not just who, but when — Understand not only who may be in the market to purchase a vehicle, but also when. This will allow you to focus immediate sales efforts on quicker prospects, while focusing on more of a nurturing program for longer-term prospects, and limit resources on less likely targets. In our experience, one large dealer in the Midwest saw 20 percent gains just by utilizing this step.
- Understand lifestyle decisions — Two SUV buyers could vary in their approach to how they use the same vehicle. One might be a sportsman using the SUV to haul a boat trailer and gear while the other might be a dad hauling kids and pets to a cottage on a lake. Knowing more about customer lifestyle will help in putting together messaging and campaigns that speak more to individual needs.
- Understand media habits — Some markets are simply more wired than others, with a preponderance of customers who are more receptive to online offers, while other markets feature customers more receptive to television or traditional direct mail. Understanding these habits will help to ensure that the message is not only appealing to them, but also is in a medium they use or rely on. This approach will yield better campaign results.
The good news is there are technologies and tools available that can help car dealers gather all this information and truly understand the nuances of their markets. So, if tastes change from big V-8s to hybrid and electric vehicles, you can manage these changes as flawlessly as Dick Clark went from introducing Buddy Holly to Beyoncé.