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’Tis the Season

Peter and Michelle Wirth, co-owners of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, stand in a showroom that is expected to see a heavy volume of shoppers looking to take advantage of end-of-year sales.

The names of the programs have become ingrained in consumers’ consciousness — December to Remember, Winter Sales Event, Wish List Sales Event, and many others — and the TV commercials are seemingly endless. But the year-end auto-sales initiatives have several goals, and have become a present for dealers and consumers alike.

The commercials started appearing during the football games and the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, among other places, a few weeks ago.

You’ve seen them … the ones where mom or dad, or perhaps their college-age daughter, looks out the window on a snowy Christmas morning to find a new car in the driveway with a big red bow on the roof or the hood.

The commercials, and there are a lot of them now with a host of themes, are part of what has become a very important — and generally very joyous — time for car makers, car dealers, and, yes, consumers: the holiday, end-of-year sales.

These campaigns all have names now — there’s the Toyota-thon, the Lexus December to Remember, the Mercedes-Benz Winter Event, the Lincoln Wish List Sales Event, and many others. And while it was once mostly a luxury-brand initiative, it’s now generally across the board.

“You have all this inventory being built based on how many vehicles the industry analysts believe are going to be purchased that year. Well, if they forecasted ’19 to be up, and it’s flat, right away you have probably more inventory than you need; this is going to be a great holiday for consumers.”

As for those commercials, while farfetched to some, they are, well, spot on in some respects.

Indeed, a growing number of consumers will ask for that red bow, and, yes, they do like to have it on the car as it sits parked in the driveway or garage on the holiday morning, said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer for Balise Motor Sales.

“It happens more than most people might think,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while some dealers will make timely and perhaps dramatic deliveries — even on Christmas Eve — most buyers will get the car (and the bow) a few days before and stash them somewhere.

And there should be more cars with ribbons on them in driveways this year, figuratively if not literally, said Robinson and others we spoke with, because this year’s holiday season is shaping up to be a big one for consumers.

That’s because, overall, auto sales in 2019 have been flat, which is still good considering how strong they’ve been for the past few years. But they were projected to be a few percentage points higher than last year.

Roughly 3% to be more precise, Sullivan went on, adding that 3% of 17 million (the approximate number of cars sold in each of the past few years) is a big number.

“You have all this inventory being built based on how many vehicles the industry analysts believe are going to be purchased that year,” he explained. “Well, if they forecasted ’19 to be up, and it’s flat, right away you have probably more inventory than you need; this is going to be a great holiday for consumers.”

But that’s only one of the reasons why this could end up being an extraordinary holiday sales period, said those we talked with, adding that, in addition to the traditional tax breaks for commercial vehicles — especially the first-year bonus depreciation deduction — a number of other factors are quite favorable.

Ben Sullivan says the holidays sales event help clear lots of cars in advance of the new model-year arrivals, while also helping manufacturers meet their goals for a given year.

These include gas prices — a little higher than earlier in the year, but still relatively low — as well as interest rates (low but projected to climb in 2020) and consumer confidence, which is still rather high as recession fears have eased in recent weeks.

But even in what would be considered more typical years, the holiday-season sale has become an effective vehicle for clearing lots of cars before the new models roll in, and also for introducing a brand to people who might otherwise overlook it.

That’s the case with Mercedes, which has been working hard in recent years to convince car buyers that its models (or some of them, anyway) are within their reach.

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, said the dealership, which draws from a large geographic area that includes Southern Vermont, Southern New Hampshire, Eastern New York, and Northern Connecticut, has been active in trying to introduce itself to consumers seeking a lower price range. And the year-end event has been one of many drawing cards.

Joe Clark, general manager of Steve Lewis Subaru in Hadley, said that car maker’s holiday sales event has a different name and different twist. The former is Share the Love, which partially explains the latter, which involves contributions to charities, which adds another ‘win’ to what was already a win-win-win scenario.

Subaru donates $250 for each car sold to a charity of the buyer’s choice, said Clark, adding that there are national and local options, and Steve Lewis matches with $50.

“In 2019, it took until July before all the ’18s had been sold off. In the meantime, all the manufacturers are making ’19s, and here we are coming into the end of the year; you want to start as clean as you can with the next model year.”

“Over the past few years, we’ve been able to raise more than $50,000,” he said, adding that, while Subaru doesn’t offer the same kinds of incentives as other makers — he says it doesn’t need to because the cars are priced appropriately — the charitable donations act as an incentive to bring consumers to the showrooms at the end of the year.

For this issue and its focus on transportation, BusinessWest talked with area dealers about these year-end sales and how they’ve become a different type of holiday tradition.

Opportunities Present Themselves

Tracing the history of the holiday sales push, Sullivan, who works for a company with more than a dozen brands in its portfolio, said that, traditionally, November and December were not big months for dealers, emphasizing the past tense.

Weather played a part in this, he said, as well as the fact that people are, by and large, focusing their time, attention, and spending dollars on the holidays and not a new car.

To spark some life into end-of-year sales activity, manufacturers, as a group, began to offer some of their best incentives at that time of the year, with the goal of hitting sales targets set roughly 12 months earlier.

Now, the deals, the incentives, and, yes, those red ribbons have become a tradition, and savvy buyers set their watches by it.

So much so that October has become a somewhat lackluster month for many dealers.

It wasn’t for Mercedes, which stages an annual certified pre-owned sale that month, said Wirth, adding that the Springfield dealership had a great October and was challenged to keep a good inventory of used cars on the lot.

But that’s another story.

This one is about the holiday sales events, which have, overall, done what they were designed to do — clear inventory and help manufacturers and dealers hit their numbers.

Joe Clark says Subaru’s ‘Share the Love’ year-end event provides consumers with still another reason to shop that brand at the end of the year.

And this year, the sales will be needed to do both, said Sullivan, noting, again, that sales have been flat and there are a lot of 2019s still on the lots that manufacturers would prefer to see gone by year’s end or at least early next year.

“In 2019, it took until July before all the ’18s had been sold off,” he went on, adding that some 2019 models, like the Toyota Tacoma, are still being built. “In the meantime, all the manufacturers are making ’19s, and here we are coming into the end of the year; you want to start as clean as you can with the next model year.

“So this year, in particular, will be interesting because it took so long to get the ’18s sold off, and now we have ’19s that we have to sell off,” he continued. “I expect that the manufacturers are going to do even more in this holiday season than they would typically in order to alleviate that stock level.”

Wirth said Mercedes has two major seasonal pushes — its summer sales program, designed to help dealers clear out inventory before the new model year arrives, and the year-end initiative, which helps meet annual sales goals.

The latter, the Winter Sales Event, is among the oldest in the business, Wirth noted, adding that Mercedes throws not only large amounts of marketing dollars at the program, but some attractive incentives as well.

“And we latch onto these programs on a dealership level because it’s not just marketing,” he told BusinessWest. “The deals are actually really good; if you’re in the market for a new car, November and December is a really good time to buy.”

Elaborating, he said that, while the incentives might not change on some of the models — and Mercedes has quite a few of them — for those months, the deals will become better for models where there is significant inventory and an opportunity to make a dent in it.

And unlike the deals presented by many manufacturers, those at Mercedes involve the latest models, in this case 2020s, as opposed to the 2019s on most lots.

Wirth told BusinessWest there isn’t a deep body of work when it comes to this dealership and the year-end sales events; after all, it opened just a few weeks before the holidays in 2017. But already some trends have emerged.

One involves commercial vehicles, and, yes, Mercedes sells a good number of them. Its vans, the mid-sized Metris and full-size Sprinter, can compete with other makes on price, and they have the Mercedes star on the grill, said Wirth, adding that some of the SUVs also qualify for what’s known as the Chapter 179 tax deduction.

“The accountants talk to their clients and say, ‘hey, you need to do something,’” he noted, adding that, while he can’t remember whether November or December was the top month for van sales last year, the other came in just behind.

Another trend involves the last few months of the year becoming some of the busiest of the year, something that has pretty much always been the case for luxury imports. In fact, the week between Christmas and New Year’s might be the busiest of the entire year, although the week before the holiday is also quite busy, said Wirth, adding that the perception that the very best time of year to buy a car is toward the end of December may well have something to do with this.

But he said the dealership strives to make it a good experience regardless of the month or the date.

Overall, the year-end tax breaks on commercial vehicles have long made November and December strong months for those types of transactions, said Sullivan, adding that, over the past several years, the holiday sales events have broadened the scope of activity to pretty much all brands and all types of vehicles. They’ve made October a somewhat lonely month for dealers, but November and December a time of excitement and, well, anticipation as they wait to see what the incentives will be.

“It’s much like a Christmas present for dealers — we have to wait to open it up when they say ‘the event is now on, and here are the consumer incentives you’ll be able to offer,’” he explained, adding that the numbers are generally known by the middle of November.

And while dealers and consumers are on the receiving end of presents, Subaru’s annual holiday event puts another group in that category — regional and national nonprofits.

“It’s not about car sales or how much you can save on a car,” said Clark. “It’s about Subaru doing what’s right and raising a bunch of money for some great charities.”

Like all the other programs, though, it provides consumers with a reason — or some additional reasons — to shop at the end of the year, he went on, adding that, over the years, the Steve Lewis dealership has supported groups and agencies ranging from area schools to the Dakin animal shelter. This year, the beneficiary will be Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Cooley Cares for Kids program.

While there are some inventory-clearing motivations for the holiday-sales event, generally Subaru doesn’t have excess-inventory issues, he noted, and, in fact, keeping a supply on the lot is the main challenge.

That’s a Wrap

As he talked while walking through the Lexus dealership on Riverdale Street, Sullivan gestured to the ornate red ribbons atop each of the models on the floor.

He said they’re supplied by a local maker, and generally start appearing on car roofs a few weeks before Thanksgiving. He didn’t say whether this year’s order was larger than normal, but he certainly implied that more ribbons — again, figuratively if not literally — will be needed this year.

That’s because, as he said, this is shaping up to be a joyous a holiday for consumers — one right out of one of those commercials.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Road Game

Coming of Age

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a new series for BusinessWest — car reviews of a sort. These are first-person looks, and some commentary, about some of the vehicles — and issues — that are, let’s say, in the news.

The author found driving the Stinger to be, well, an adventure.

When last we left our heroes — yes, I’m a huge Rocky & Bullwinkle fan and still have a ‘WhatsamataU?’ T-shirt (oldest thing I own) — we were talking about how no one’s driving cars anymore and SUVs now rule the earth.

While that’s an exaggeration (and Bullwinkle loved to exaggerate), it’s not far from the truth. SUVs are the big sellers, and cars are taking, well, a back seat.

These days, people need a good reason to drive a sedan, or several of them. Which is a nice way to segue to the Kia Stinger, the coolest, baddest sedan you’ve probably never heard of. Truth is, you’ve probably seen one and gone ‘what the heck is that?’ You could answer your own question if you, or the car in question, happened to be moving slowly enough to see the word ‘Stinger’ or the Kia logo. Or you were at a red light. It’s probably the latter, because the Stinger doesn’t move slowly. But we’ll get to that later.

Let’s get back to that ‘never heard of’ part. There are reasons for that.

First off, they don’t make many Stingers — it’s a specialty car of sorts and certainly not a big seller. Secondly, it’s made by Kia, which, although it’s made some serious strides in recent years, is still … Kia, a relative newcomer known mostly for making solid, economical cars with lots of value.

And that’s being kind. The company had a reputation, just like Hyundai did 20 to 25 years ago and Honda and Nissan (yes, I know, it was Datsun back then) did 40 to 45 years ago for making practical but uninspiring — and, yes, cheap, cars. Those brands grew up, and Kia has as well.

“It’s a wonderful vehicle — we’ve received a lot of positive response for it; most of the time, when we get them in, they sell out within 48 hours.”

The Stinger provides all the evidence you need, but there’s plenty more, said Mike Spanilo, general manager of Balise Kia in West Springfield, adding that the new Telluride, an in-demand, mid-sized SUV, is certainly making people rethink what ‘Kia’ means.

“It’s a wonderful vehicle — we’ve received a lot of positive response for it; most of the time, when we get them in, they sell out within 48 hours,” he said, adding that Kia now has a deep lineup of cars and SUVs that attract area buyers in all age groups.

Spanilo, who has been with Balise for more than 20 years now and sold GM and Chrysler products most recently, said he came to Kia with some preconceived notions that he soon realized were quite dated.

“My perspective on this, coming from two American-made brands, is that I was pleasantly surprised at what I found when I got here — because I had never driven a Kia before I got here,” he said. “If you’ve gotta sell ’em, you’ve gotta like ’em, and that has not been a difficult thing for me to transition to; this brand has definitely come a long way.”

Looking Sharp

All this brings us to the Stinger, and also … Jose Perozo, a sales associate at Balise Kia, whose story sounds a little like that of Victor Kiam. Sort of.

You remember him — probably. Maybe not. He’s the guy who owned Remington shavers and, later, the New England Patriots — thankfully, not for very long; one of his teams went 1-15. Anyway, the line he used in his commercials for Remington was, “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company.”

The Stinger blends concept-car looks with performance and value.

Perozo bought a Kia a few years back and liked them so much he went to work selling them. And while selling them, he absolutely fell in love with the Stinger. So much so, he bought one.

Coincidentally, he was bringing his home just a few hours before he took this writer along for a ride — not in his car, but the other Stinger on the lot.

To say that he could barely control his excitement would be an understatement. Every time he accelerated, and every time he thought he saw a Camaro, Mustang, or Charger driver looking over in what he perceived to be envy, you could see some discernable pride in ownership.

And that speaks quite loudly and effectively not only for this model, but the whole Kia lineup.

You don’t have to put the Kerwood Derby on your head (best Bullwinkle plotline ever; Google it) to know that Riverdale Street isn’t a good stretch for test-driving a car. There’s a ton of traffic, red lights that stay red for an hour or two, and long stretches where you have to go in the direction opposite from the one you want to in to get where you want to go.

Fortunately, a U-turn and a few of those lights later, you’re on that stretch of Route 5 that includes the North End, Memorial, and South End bridges, where the Stinger can begin to show what it can do. And after a quick trip over the last of those bridges and onto I-91, you can really get the idea.

The Stinger GT2 we drove ($51,000 fully loaded; top of the line) has a twin-turbo V-6 that delivers 360 horses and goes from zero to 60 in about 4.7 seconds. Drivers can choose a number of ‘modes’ for travel, or the car can pick one itself. These include ‘economy,’ ‘comfort,’ ‘smart,’ and ‘sport.’ The last of those options is obviously the most fun.

As Perozo punched the accelerator while in sport mode, the Stinger showed off its considerable straight-line speed, which is just one of its many positive traits. Others include the exterior design — it has concept-car looks — decent amounts of handling and comfort, optional all-wheel drive, and the requisite bells and whistles in the infotainment category — Apple CarPlay and Adroid Auto are standard.

While the Stinger has many of the safety features available on luxury brands — and even some non-luxury brands — today, it doesn’t go overboard, if you know what I mean.

And the trunk even passes the golf-club test, which, as we all know, is what the experts look for when scoring a vehicle. Forget those JD Power awards — can you get the golf clubs in the trunk?

And there’s something else. While the Stinger has many of the safety features available on luxury brands — and even some non-luxury brands — today, it doesn’t go overboard, if you know what I mean.

(Warning: old-man rant coming!) If you don’t know what I mean, cars that will alert you when to brake or if there’s a vehicle in your blind spot are fine, for the most part. Cars that flash the speed limit for the road you’re on and then make it blink on and off when going above it, and cars that not only alert you if you’re drafting from the center of your lane but yank you back to center, well … I have people yelling at me and telling I’m doing something wrong all day long; I don’t need the car to do that, too.

The Stinger doesn’t do any of that. What it does is almost defy categorization. It’s a luxury car, but not like most. It’s a performance vehicle, but not like most. It’s a muscle car (well, sort of, but not really) that’s not like most. And it can compete with cars in all those categories. It isn’t inexpensive — the entry-level, four-cylinder model is priced at $34,000 — but that’s far less than most of the luxury brands it competes against, and there is considerably more value.

Kia has indeed come of age, and the Stinger is just one of the models that makes this clear.

Speed Thrills

You’re wondering about that Kerwood Derby thing, aren’t you? See, there was this guy on Candid Camera (yes, from the early ’60s, I know), a co-host of sorts named Durwood Kirby who was bland and, quite frankly, dumber than a bag of hammers. The makers of Rocky & Bullwinkle spoofed the name in an episode all about a derby that had magical powers and could make its wearer the smartest person in the world. Guess you had to see it.

If you did, you’re getting old; you need to feel younger. Test driving a Stinger will certainly help.

As for this series of car reviews, in the true spirit of Rocky & Bullwinkle, tune in next time, when ‘O’Brien Vettes a Chevy,’ or ‘O’Brien takes on all Challengers.’

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Autos

Moving into the Fast Lane

Mike Howard, assistant manager of ATG Westfield, stands by one of the many trucks for sale at the facility on Southampton Road.

John Paulik summed things up by saying that “something had to give.”

That’s how he described some conflicting forces within the truck sales and service industry in the Northeast, specifically an ongoing pattern of consolidation among many of the players, as well as a desire for some of these players to stay independent.

Again, something had to give. And it did.

While in most respects it looks like a merger, he called it a “joint venture,” the coming together roughly a year ago of Tri State Truck Center of Shrewsbury and McDevitt Trucks, which owned the Patriot Freightliner dealership on Southampton Road in Westfield — along with three other dealerships in New Hampshire and one in Vermont — to create Advantage Truck Group, or ATG.

This larger entity, a comprehensive dealer network, is now the largest Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) dealer network in New England, said Paulik, its senior vice president and general manager, and it uses this size and geographic reach to, well, its advantage as it specializes in sales, service, and support of DTNA’s Western Star and Freightliner branded trucks.

“Merging all these locations under one roof just made a good deal of sense on a number of levels — central management is a great advantage,” he said, noting that there are economies of scale to be gained and other benefits from the sheer size and scope of the operation. “Another advantage is that we’re not competing against one another anymore.”

Paulik said ATG’s customer base is broad and diverse, meaning it includes large fleets, small owner-operators in myriad businesses, and just about everything in between, including municipal vehicles, ambulances, and utility trucks. For entities of all sizes, keeping trucks on the road is the obvious goal, and ATG supports them in this quest in a number of ways.

For example, it has the largest parts network in New England, supported by a fleet of 25 parts-delivery vans that provide daily service to customers. There’s also an on-site maintenance program and on-call access 24/7/365 to emergency roadside assistance.

But while the business keeps rolling — that’s an industry term — and the merger, or joint venture, is working as those who orchestrated it had hoped it would, there are a number of challenges to continued growth, said Paulik, especially the recruitment of a skilled workforce.

“These small businesses can’t afford to have their vehicles down — that’s their livelihood. When their truck is down, we help get it back on the road again.”

And by workforce, he means much more than diesel technicians, although that’s a big part of it. Indeed, the challenge extends to every facet of the business.

“The biggest story for us is finding employees — not only technicians but parts people, warehouse workers, and those in truck sales,” he explained. “It’s all down the line.”

As a result, ATG works with local schools and the state’s workforce system to bring attention to the many attractive career opportunities within the trucking and transportation industry.

“We’re working to help young people interested in the trades and all aspects of this industry,” Paulik went on. “Yes, there is a huge problem with hiring technicians, but a dealership is more than just technicians; a dealership has many job titles.”

Backing up a bit — something else they do in this industry — Paulik said there were a number of forces that brought Tri State Truck Center and McDevitt Trucks together. Primarily, though, it was the size, strength, and flexibility that such a union can provide that made it attractive.

“DTNA has been promoting dealer consolidation for some time — it’s looking for regional rather than individual dealers,” he explained, adding that there were several reasons why such consolidation was somewhat slow to develop in New England — primarily because several of the locations were family owned, well-established in their respective markets, and wanted to stay independent.

But given the current climate, it simply made sense to bring the two companies and their various locations under one central ownership.

“This was the right time to do this — to create a regional truck dealership group,” he told BusinessWest. “This gives the customers a higher level of support, and it aligns the two dealers.”

Thus, the ATG name is now over the door of the sprawling Westfield facility, as well as those in Shrewsbury, Seabrook, N.H., and Westminster, Vt. Affiliated McDevitt dealers in both Lancaster and Manchester, N.H. are also part of the ATG dealer network.

The Westfield location, which, like the others, is well-situated off major arteries (in this case the Mass Pike, Route 20, and Routes 10/202), sells more than 100 trucks on average each year, and will service more than 700 vehicles of all sizes, from 18-wheelers to municipal vehicles, such as DPW and trash trucks.

ATG’s commitment to providing the highest standard of service for its customers is rooted in its dedication to Elite Support, said Paulik, referring to a collaborative initiative between Daimler Trucks North America and its dealers to improve the customer experience at Freightliner and Western Star dealerships. Elite Support certification involves a rigorous continuous-improvement process that covers all areas of customer service, overall quality of workmanship, rapid diagnosis, turnaround times, robust parts availability, and exceptional customer amenities. Both the ATG-Shrewsbury and ATG-Westfield locations are Elite Support-certified, he noted, and the company is taking the necessary steps to achieve certification at its other Freightliner and Western Star dealer locations.

ATG is adding resources and expanding other customer-support initiatives across its dealer network, he went on, including a “warranty on wheels” program for Freightliner and Western Star vehicles that enables warranty work to be performed by ATG technicians on site at customer locations, and service vans in each state that provide on-call access 24/7 to emergency roadside assistance for a wide range of vehicle brands. Meanwhile, dedicated service and support staff at each dealership have access to information systems that have been integrated across all ATG locations to give customers real-time visibility of parts inventory and service and repair status.

These are just some of the advantages that come with this joint venture, said Paulik, adding that the customers, which, again, come in all sizes, are the real beneficiaries.

Elaborating, he said that, while ATG handles a number of large fleets, including those for Stop & Shop, Burke Oil, and Regency Transport, among many others, the majority of its customers are smaller, locally based businesses that rely on their trucks to keep products moving and revenue coming in.

“We focus on local businesses, and we treat smaller businesses like large ones,” he told BusinessWest. “These small businesses can’t afford to have their vehicles down — that’s their livelihood. When their truck is down, we help get it back on the road again.”

Looking down that road, Paulik said the creation of ATG will continue to bring benefits for the dealers in the group as well as the customers they serve.

As he said at the top, something had to give, and what has emerged from this joint venture is a dealership group well-positioned to stay in the fast lane for years, and decades, to come.

— George O’Brien

Autos

Ben Sullivan, COO of Balise Motor Sales, says pick-up truck sales, especially those involving small trucks, have been moving steadily higher in recent years.

As Pick-ups Evolve and Offer Consumers More, Sales Spiral

While most of the focus in the auto-sales market has been on the meteoric rise of the SUV, pick-up truck sales have also been climbing, and for the same reasons. Like SUVs, the trucks now offer many of the features and amenities of a car — from leather seats to solid gas mileage.

Ben Sullivan notes that while SUVs and cars seem to be making all the news these days — the former because of how well they’re selling, and the latter because how they’re not selling — there is that third segment of the market that is making a lot of noise in its own right; trucks.
This is not a recent phenomenon, noted Sullivan, chief operating officer for Balise Motor Sales, adding that truck sales have been solid for some time and especially since the end of the recession and during the recent, and prolonged period of relatively low gas prices. But the number of truck sales continues to be move higher, and for several reasons, one in particular.

“What we’ve seen over the past decade is a significant investment by the manufacturers in not only styling, but ride comfort, quietness, electronics, safety equipment, and especially fuel economy,” said Sullivan. “To the point where they’ve made the pick-up truck probably the primary choice for people; they can drive it to the country club on the weekend and to a work site during the week. It gives people a lot of flexibility.”

He noted that while the sales of mid-sized, half-ton trucks (think Ford 150, Chevy Silverado, and Dodge Ram, the three most popular sellers, and in that order) have been relatively flat, there is considerable movement in the smaller-truck market, featuring brands like the Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger, and Chevy Colorado.

He called this development a “resurgence,” because small trucks were popular in the ’80s, then things cooled off considerably, and now, they’re picking up again (pun intended), and in rather dramatic fashion.

“For years, the small-pick-up-truck market fell dormant behind the explosive growth of the half-ton-pick-up-truck market,” he explained. “Been there’s been a real resurgence in the small pick-up.”

But while the smaller trucks are selling, there is solid movement across the board, especially when there are incentives available.
Indeed, Jeff Sarat, owner of Sarat Ford Lincoln in Agawam, said he normally sells about 20 to 25 super-duty trucks — that would be the F-250 through F-550 and up — each July. Last month, he sold 54, more than a 100% increase.

Jeff Sarat says pick-ups now offer almost everything cars and SUVs do, including solid gas mileage.

“Ford came out with some really aggressive programs — 0% for 72 months – so they created a market, which was phenomenal for business,” he said. “I had multiple customers buy more than one, because businesses — and that’s really who’s buying those type of trucks — they haven’t had that deal for three years.”

The response was quick, too, he added, as Ford didn’t even start the promotion until mid-July. “My guys just got on the phone and started calling people: “hey, we can lower your payment 100 bucks and put you in a brand-new truck.’ And people were flocking in. It was awesome.”
Ford agrees, extending what was supposed to be a two-week promotion through Labor Day, creating worries that Sarat might actually run out of trucks before the October-through-December season, which is traditionally a good time for truck sales — he usually sells about 100 super-duties over those three months — as businesses make year-end purchases for tax purposes.

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said truck sales, like SUVs, will continue to move higher at the expense of the car, because, again like SUVs, the product continues to evolve, improve, and provide more of what consumers are demanding.

Work in Progress

Sullivan recently relocated to Western Mass. from Texas, specifically the Dallas area. The Lone Star State is known for many things — from oil to cattle to Friday night football — but it might just be the pick-up truck capital of the world.

“They really like their pick-ups in Texas,” he said with a smile, noting that while nationally, one auto purchase in five is a pick-up, in Texas, it’s at least one in four. And in keeping with the state’s character, bigger — and better-appointed — is better.

“You’re not a gentleman cowboy unless you’re driving an F-250, which is a diesel engine, with King Ranch leather interior,” he said referring to the expensive brand of leather from that ranch in Texas. “And that thing is probably an $80,000 truck by the time everything is said and done.”
Western Massachusetts, and the Northeast as a whole, is a long way from Texas, geographically and also with regard to the popularity of pick-ups, but this region is gaining some ground in that regard, if you will, and numbers supplied by Sullivan bear this out.

He said that since the start of the year in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, roughly 300,000 vehicles have been sold. Of those, 31,000 would be considered mid-sized, half-ton trucks; 20,000 are larger work trucks, and 13,000 are smaller, quarter-ton trucks, leaving a total of 54,000 pickups sold to date, not quite 20% of the total volume of vehicles.

And, as noted, while the biggest surge has been with the smaller trucks, sales are steady across the board, thanks to a still-solid economy that is fueling sales to consumers and businesses alike, and especially the former.

“Those guys are having good years, and they’re adding people,” said Sarat, referring to the builders, contractors, landscapers, and others that rely on larger trucks and work them hard. “When the economy is up, it’s good for everybody, and that especially helps us because we specialize in trucks.”

And the numbers are only expected to climb higher for those reasons cited earlier by those we spoke with. Where once people had to sacrifice things like comfort, luxury, room, technological bells and whistles, and especially gas mileage when they bought a pickup, now, they don’t have to.

Indeed, Sarat used the Ford F-150 to get his points home. This model remains popular among non-commercial drivers, although some businesses use them in their fleets as well. ‘I drive one,” Sarat said. “If you have a family of five, you can all hop in it and go somewhere — and put something in the bed if you need to.”

And, as noted, the trucks are becoming more car-like in terms of comfort and features which each passing model year.

“Every year, the technology gets better, and the safety features get better,” Sarat said. “I have an app on my phone that I can use to start my truck anywhere in the world. If a check-engine light goes on, from that app on my phone, I can see, ‘OK it’s an oxygen sensor, I’ve got to get it in for service,’ or maybe it’s nothing major, and it’s on because this is something I can fix.”

Safety features like self-parking and anti-collision assist are common in today’s trucks as well, and self-driving vehicles aren’t far away, he added. Plug-in hybrid options are creeping into the truck market as well, for people who crave fuel efficiency – or just want to use less fossil fuels. Even traditional, gas-powered trucks are being built with fuel economy in mind.

“I just drove to Ohio last week with my son, 580 miles. And I got out there on one tank of gas,” he said. “My fuel economy was better than I’ve ever had in any truck. Once I got out there, I still had about 100 miles left. That, to me, was impressive.”

Whether it’s efficiency, safety, or other technology, “it’s slowly getting better,” Sarat said. “It’s ever-changing. They’re definitely not stagnant, that’s for sure.”

Sullivan agreed, adding that all these amenities obviously come with a cost, but it is one that consumers seem ready and willing to pay.

“Manufacturers still have to make the affordable work trucks,” he explained, adding that there’s a work-truck grade, a grade above that, and maybe a few above that. “But by the time you’re done with the leather interiors, the technology and the touch-screen displays, the heated and cooled leather seats, you can drive the price of those trucks up quite a bit.”

By that he meant north of $60,000 or $70,000 — and even higher if one wants a fully loaded F-150 King Ranch. And what’s interesting, he noted, is that the manufacturers haven’t yet determined just what the ceiling is for these vehicles in terms of luxury and appointments — and what people might be willing to pay for all that.

“What the manufacturers have been playing with at the top is … ‘how much truck is too much so that no one will buy it?’” he told BusinessWest. “I don’t think they’ve found that yet.”

The Ride Stuff

While Texas and the rest of the pick-up-truck buying world awaits an answer to that question, dealers here and seemingly everywhere continue to record healthy sales of the vehicles.

It’s a movement that seems destined to continue and probably accelerate, because today’s trucks are not yesterday’s trucks.
As Sarat noted, they are anything but stagnant. They are moving — in every sense of that word.

George O’Brien can be reached at
[email protected]

Autos

Peter Vecchiarelli, left, and Tom Parsons say that building relationships is the key to success when it comes to commercial truck sales.

Nutmeg Trucks Stands Out by Forging Partnerships with Customers

Peter Vecchiarelli says that selling commercial trucks — everything from box trucks to tanker trucks to huge dump trucks — is a lot like selling … almost anything else.

It’s obviously important to know everything there is about the products you’re selling and servicing, he told BusinessWest. But it’s more important to know and understand everything there is to know about the specific customer.

Indeed, sometimes what a customer thinks he or she needs isn’t really what they need, said Vecchiarelli, general manager of Nutmeg Truck Center in West Springfield, which sells and leases International and Isuzu vehicles and services all makes.

“You don’t want to be a know-it-all, but you want to suggest things that will benefit the customer,” Vecchiarelli said, adding that these suggestions comprise just one of the keys for this business.

Tom Parsons agreed. He sold cars for 30 years before joining Nutmeg, and noted some similarities between that world and this one. In both, and especially this one, success comes from working in partnership with the client to forge an appropriate solution.

“You really have to know the product and what the customer needs,” he explained. “Every single customer has a business, where every person who buys a car probably doesn’t, and each business is different.”

This mindset has enabled Nutmeg — a Connecticut-based business (hence the name) with six locations (the other five are in Connecticut — to stand out in a crowded field of competitors, said Vecchiarelli. He added that success isn’t necessarily dictated by the inventory on the lot (although that certainly helps), but rather by the level of trust that can be established with the client.

“We try to sell ourselves,” Vecchiarelli said. “People buy from who they like and trust, that’s one of our huge mottos. We’ve been around, and people trust us.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest talked at length with Vecchiarelli and Parsons about the truck business and what it takes to be leader within it.

This Isuzu truck, suitable for a wide array of potential clients, is one of many on the lot at Nutmeg Trucks.

Driving Force

And Vecchiarelli started by saying that the truck business certainly wasn’t in his plans when he graduated from Westfield State University in 1992.

Actually, he didn’t have any real plans at all.

Indeed, he earned a degree in Communications, but had no solid ideas about what to do with it. For a while, he worked his summer job and coached football with his brother at Agawam High School. One day, he came across an entry level management job at Penske Truck Rental in Chicopee.

That’s how he got his start in the truck business, and when he found Nutmeg in 1996, he never looked back.

And while looking straight ahead, he told BusinessWest, he wears a good number of hats. Many are part and parcel to having ‘general manager’ on one’s business card, but some might surprise you.

For example, he might very well be the one delivering a new or used truck to a client, an assignment he said he carries out on a regular basis.

This is one of those little things that add up, he said, adding that the big things include having quality products to offer and, again, working closely with the client to find solutions.

This is necessary, because, as noted, there is considerable competition within the truck marketplace.

On the International side, Nutmeg competes against the likes of Ford, Freightliner Trucks, and Mack Trucks. Isuzu competitors include Chevrolet, Hino and Mitsubishi.

Overall, business has been solid over the past several years as the economy has continued its pattern of slow yet steady growth, said Vecchiarelli, adding that company sold more than 40 new and used vehicles in 2018 and is on pace to double that number this year.

It’s customer portfolio, as might be expected, is diverse, and includes everything from general contractors to municipalities to area farms.

In addition to selling trucks, Nutmeg also sells truck parts and provides other services to its customers. Vecchiarelli noted that Clean Machine Power Wash buys all its trucks from Nutmeg, which has a great relationship with the owner. A few weeks ago, the business had its company picnic and asked if Vecchiarelli would do a few oil changes on their trucks while the business was closed for the day. Each oil change on a truck takes from an hour to an hour and a half to complete, and Nutmeg did 11 oil changes throughout the day.

“It’s just the little things we do,” Vecchiarelli said. “It’s not always an 8 to 5 job. You have to do what it takes.”

This brings him back to that work involving relationship-building, how it can create repeat customers and often turn relatively small transactions into much larger ones down the road.

As an example, he recalled the story of how the sale of an $11,000 used box truck eventually turned into much more.

“As I was delivering the used truck, the customer said he was interested in buying a new tri-axle dump truck in the future,” said Vecchiarelli while pointing out one of the obvious benefits of doing that work himself. “We put stuff together and sold him one and he then recommended his friend to us for another tri-axle dump; we turned an $11,000 sale into two dump trucks worth almost $400,000.”

Fundamentally Speaking

There have been many stories like that recorded over the years, said both Vecchiarelli and Parsons, adding that by focusing on the fundamentals of customer service, Nutmeg continues to thrive and grow.

“Those fundamental things are so true,” he said. “We practice fundamentals, try to over deliver and exceed expectations.”

Vecchiarelli agreed. “The biggest thing that sets us apart from the competition is experience, getting the job done, and building relationships,” he said in summation. “If you do little things right, people remember that.” u

Autos

Rob Pion, says Buick is trying to make inroads in the SUV market and has a lineup to do just that.

Buick’s SUV Lineup Helps Company Shed ‘Uncle Car’ Image

Editor’ Note: With this issue, BusinessWest launches something new and different for its auto-sales section — first-person looks, and some commentary — about some of the vehicles that are, let’s say, in the news.

And that person will be me.

That laughing you just heard was brother Robert. He’s reading this and thinking, if not saying out loud, ‘George is going to do car reviews?!?’

Well, sort of, as I will explain.

First, as to why my brother is laughing … while, like most all guys (and people for that matter), I like cars and shared every Baby Boomers dream of owning a 1972 Dodge Challenger, I am not a ‘car guy.’

Am I, however, like most people. My ability to ‘work’ on cars is limited to adding washer fluid and putting air in the tires. I wash it, I vacuum it, I put Armor All on the steering wheel, I put gas in it, and I drive it. That’s most people. So am I qualified to do this? I guess. As much as anyone else.

What is this? Well, it’s not reviews of the cars and trucks coming onto the market these days. I won’t be rating cupholders, trunk space, and headlights — although they’re all important. I’ll be using test drives to talk about emerging stories in this business — and talk a little about the cars, trucks, and SUVs themselves.

First, more about me … my first car was a 1973 Chevy Impala. There are a lot of Boomers nodding their heads right now. That was a lot of people’s first car. It was a large, four-door sedan, and I have been driving those ever since, with one real exception.

My now ex-wife and I were in Aruba in 1994, visiting the far side of the island. Those who have been there know it looks like the kind of place Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and the crew member destined to die in that episode would beam down to and put the phasers on ‘stun.’ It’s desolate, with lots of sand and pink rocks and things like that. Anyway, to get around, you need a four-wheel drive vehicle, so we rented a Chevy Tracker, a small, as in very small, domesticated version of a Jeep.

We liked it so much, we said ‘when we get back, we gotta get one of these.’ And we did.

My sister in law likened it to a ride at Six Flags. ‘You have to be at least this tall to ride in it,’ she would joke, ‘and you must keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle until it comes to a complete stop.’

Other than that, large four-door sedans. With big back seats and big trunks. This, despite the fact that I don’t think I’ve had a human passenger in my back seat since a funeral procession. In 1993. But I have to have a big back seat. As for the trunk, it’s for the golf clubs, but hardly anyone builds a trunk big enough to put all the clubs down sideways or even on an angle. So I have to take the driver out, which is a pain.

All of this provides a nice segue to … Buick.

This is the company that invented the large four-door sedan. Well, not really, but everyone thinks they did. That’s seemingly all they made for decades, for guys (and women) like me.

I had an uncle who only bought Buicks. I think everyone has an uncle who only bought Buicks. They’re an ‘uncle’ car. Or at least they were.

For some time now, Buick has been working hard to put young people into their vehicles. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, you might remember that GM hired Tiger Woods to be its Buick spokesperson. His mission wasn’t to sell to golf fans, but to the younger audience, and he had some success. That’s some.

Today, Buick is letting its cars do the talking, only the cars are, for the most part, SUVs. (I have been told that in the lingo of the industry, SUVs are not cars; they are SUVs. Large four-door sedans are cars. That’s what I’m told.)

Back to Buick … they’re not selling many cars anymore, but they’re selling more SUVs — and to people of all ages, as Rob Pion, third-generation general manager of Bob Pion GMC Buick in Chicopee, explained as we took the Buick Enclave (Avenir model), the largest of the models in the lineup, for a spin.

Big Improvement

At first, I thought it was the SUV.

The world really does look much different when you’re riding high in a large SUV (maybe 30 inches from the ground) as opposed to your standard four-door sedan (maybe 20 inches).

But it’s not the vehicle, Memorial Drive looks much different from any height, as became clear as we headed north on that road from the Pion dealership toward South Hadley.

Back when Tiger Woods was plugging Buicks and Bill Clinton was in the White House, BusinessWest operated out of a small office on Memorial Drive. Back then, this was the land that time forgot — there was a dead mall (Fairfield), a Ponderosa Steak House (maybe it was a Bonanza), and other chain restaurants seen nowhere else. Things look much better now with new hotels, a strong lineup of stores where the mall was, and many new businesses.

But there is that huge open lot where the Hu Ku Lau used to be.

“We’re not sure what’s happening there,” said Pion as we drove by the grassy lot, obvious concern in his voice. “Everyone’s watching that closely to see what develops.”

Enough about Memorial Drive … back to the Buick and the Enclave Avenir, sticker price just under $60,000. It’s large, with three rows; looking in the rear-view mirror, the back window looks like it’s in another state — one of those in the Midwest — and well-appointed. It features what’s called ‘intelligent all-wheel drive,’ which means it did well on its SATs, and has every safety device one might expect, as well as all the technology, meaning connectivity. It’s six-cylinder engine delivers 310 horses and decent mileage for something this large — 17 city/25 highway mpg (see, I can do car talk). Meanwhile, it easily passes the golf-bag test.

And it’s really, really quiet, meaning my tape recorder had no problem picking up Pion as he talked about how Buick’s SUVs — the smaller Encore, mid-sized Envision, and large Enclave — are expected to compete with the top luxury brands in the market and bring younger audiences into the Buick showrooms.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien tries out the Enclave Avenir, the top of the line.

“GM’s vision for this is to go against BMW, Lincoln, Mercedes … the premium SUVs,” he said, referring specifically to the Enclave Avenir, but ostensibly to the whole lineup. And while Buick is still lagging well behind other brands when it comes to SUV sales, it is starting to gather some momentum, especially with the smaller model, the Encore, priced in the mid 20s to just over $30,000.

“We’re getting young people to at least come in and give it a look,” Pion said of the SUV lineup. “Many wouldn’t even do that before.”

Buick still has a long way to go to not only shed it’s old-person’s-car image but also become a serious player in the white-hot SUV market.

But based on this drive down Memorial Avenue and the vehicles now in the Buick showrooms, the carmaker known for sedans, as in big sedans, would appear to have a fighting chance. u

Autos

The ‘Attainability Factor’

Peter Wirth says the new A-Class presents a huge opportunity

Peter Wirth says the new A-Class presents a huge opportunity to showcase the attainability of several Mercedes models.

Since opening its doors roughly 16 months ago, Peter Wirth says, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield has met or exceeded most all of its stated goals and expectations.

Save one, perhaps.

Indeed, if it is lagging in any aspect of its multi-faceted operation, it is in the broad realm of educating customers across its broad service area that a Mercedes is affordable — or ‘attainable,’ the word he and the industry prefer to use.

It’s not from lack of trying, he said, before adding quickly that the company will try even harder, but probably more a function of the fact that there hadn’t been a Mercedes dealership in the 413 area for a full decade before this one opened on the site of the old Schine Inn just off Route 291 in Chicopee.

And this helps explain why residents of this area might not be as enlightened as those in other markets when it comes to the fact that ‘Mercedes’ and ‘affordable’ can co-exist in the same sentence.

“We missed out on all that communication, getting the cars into the marketplace, talking about them, and showing them,” he said of that 10-year hiatus, during which the carmaker greatly expanded and diversified its lineup.

But Mercedes now has an additional arrow in this quiver of attainability and another intriguing talking point, he said, with the introduction of the A-Class, which will begin rolling into showrooms, including the one in Chicopee, next month. It joins the CLA, introduced several years ago, and the GLA model SUV as Mercedes models that start at under $40,000, and Wirth expects it to be a significant addition to the portfolio.

“We feel that this is a unique opportunity for us to educate consumers in this market,” he said. “This is the first big launch of a car that’s going to shape the brand perception since we opened.”

That’s because the A-Class is about more than affordability, he told BusinessWest. It’s also about technology and a leap from traditional luxury to what Mercedes is calling ‘modern luxury,’ meaning features like MBUX.

“We feel that this is a unique opportunity for us to educate consumers in this market. This is the first big launch of a car that’s going to shape the brand perception since we opened.”

That stands for Mercedes-Benz User Experience, which the carmaker, and Wirth, tout as the next generation of user-friendly technology. The MBUX user interface allows the driver to use voice commands to control everything from the radio station and the volume level to the temperature in the cabin.

“The system is easy to learn because it actually learns you,” said Wirth, adding that the technology comes to understand the driver’s habits, right down to the preferred radio stations and music. “This is something that will trickle up into the other cars over time, but it’s something we’re phasing in with the new entry point to the brand.”

The A-Class is equipped with MBUX, hailed as the next generation of user-friendly technology.

The A-Class is equipped with MBUX, hailed as the next generation of user-friendly technology.

It was explained — sort of — in a commercial that first aired during the Super Bowl. It wasn’t rated high in any of the ‘best of’ polls, but you might have seen it. A young, professional-looking male starts to see everything he says come to fruition, from an ATM spitting out money after he gives the command ‘make it rain,’ to an opera singer magically transforming into rapper Ludacris when he says ‘change the music.’

The trend continues when he gets behind the wheel of his Mercedes A-Class and voices several commands, including ‘change the color’ — and the dashboard lights do just that — as well as ‘make it cooler,’ and ‘play my music.’ The commercial ends with the ‘voice’ saying ‘if only everything in your life listened to you like your new Mercedes.’

Wirth gave similar commands as he gave a demonstration of the first A-Class to arrive at his dealership. Starting each conversation — because that’s what these are — with ‘hey, Mercedes,’ he proceeded to turn the heat up by merely saying ‘I’m cold,’ receive directions to a downtown Springfield business, and get a rundown on the restaurants within a mile’s radius of the dealership.

Meanwhile, the dashboard instrumentation can be changed electronically to display anything the driver wants, from the odometer and tachometer to things like speed limit and the range the car can go on the amount of gas left in the tank.

As for the affordability factor, the A-Class has a base sticker price of $32,000 (which includes a considerable amount of standard equipment, including a sunroof and the user interface), and most will price out at under $40,000.

That’s a number that wouldn’t surprise most people in other markets, who have had a Mercedes dealership to visit through this decade and have become aware of several models that fall into the ‘affordable’ category. But it might still surprise many in this region.

And with that, Wirth revisited another Super Bowl commercial, the one for the CLA model, which debuted at $29,000. It was a spot that turned some heads and put a Mercedes in driveways where one had never been.

“That was a big bang — that was eye-opening for many people,” he said, adding that the CLA, which remains popular, would go on to secure what’s known in the business as a ‘high conquest rate,’ meaning that people were opting out of the cars they were driving and into the new Mercedes model.

This is significant, he said, because, conversely, Mercedes has one of the highest loyalty rates within the industry, meaning that once they own or lease one, the Mercedes customer is very likely to go back for another.

“This is hugely important to us because we feel like we’re establishing a relationship with someone and giving exposure to our brand to people who will ultimately keep on doing business with us going forward,” he said. “They will have kids, they’ll maybe want an SUV at some point, so filling that pipeline with customers is important.”

The company is hoping for a similarly high conquest rate with the A-Class, which can turn heads not just with its styling and price tag, but also the user-friendly technology.

If they’re right, more people will be saying ‘hey, Mercedes,’ before and after they get in the car.

— George O’Brien

Autos

Cruise Control

As the 2019 models continue to roll into area showrooms, area auto dealers report that sales remain brisk, at something approximating the levels of 2017, which was a very robust year for the industry. Meanwhile, a host of trends have continued or accelerated, including torrid sales of SUVs and trucks, a high volume of used-car transactions, and a heavy emphasis on improving the overall consumer experience.

Jeb Balise held his hand up with his thumb and forefinger barely a half-inch apart.

And then, for emphasis, he brought them even closer together.

“They’re down about that much,” Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales, told BusinessWest, referring to new car sales in 2018 (which still has a few months left, obviously) compared to a year ago.

Essentially, sales are flat, which, as Balise and others told us back at the start of this year, around President’s Day sales time, is a really good thing, because auto sales — an almost always accurate barometer when it comes to the national economy — have been rock solid the past several years.

“They’re just about the same as last year — down a tiny, tiny bit,” said Balise, adding that there is just that much less pent-up demand (resulting from cars, like their owners, living longer lives these days) this year than the past few. But there are still a number of other factors driving steady sales, including a still-booming economy, record-low unemployment, quality vehicles across the board, attractive incentives from the manufacturers, and more.

So sales are still humming, and Carla Cosenzi, president of the Tommy Car Auto Group, believes that at her four dealerships, sales are actually up from a year ago.

“We’re seeing an increase in 2018 over last year, and 2017 was a very good year for us,” she said, echoing Balise’s comments. “It’s not a significant increase, but an increase nonetheless, and 2017 was a really good year.”

Overall, 2018 has been a year when recent trends in the auto market have maintained their speed or even accelerated slightly. These include red hot used-car sales; white-hot SUV and truck sales (especially the former); growing interest in electric and hybrid vehicles, although they still comprise a very small segment of the market; and new levels of convenience for the consumer.

“We’re seeing an increase in 2018 over last year, and 2017 was a very good year for us. It’s not a significant increase, but an increase nonetheless, and 2017 was a really good year.”

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which opened just over a year ago, says he’s seen all or most of the above at his dealership, a facility that has met or exceeded the lofty goals set for its first year of operation.

And that’s especially true in an often-overlooked but quite important segment of this business — the service department.

There are many qualitative measures for this, he said, especially the fact that the dealership recently hired its 12th technician, tripling the number it started with, for the 14-bay facility.

This surge in business in the service department stems from a variety of factors, from how long Mercedes models stay on the road to the fact that the next-closest dealership is in Hartford, said Wirth, adding that demand has risen steadily since the ceremonial grand-opening ribbon was cut — a clear sign that the new dealership has made its presence known.

“The floodgates opened, and in a good way,” he noted. “We’ve been at capacity for the next few days in the service department since the day we opened, and way we’re keeping up is by adding capacity so we can keep it at a reasonable timeframe for customers.”

“It’s been a 100% success story — we’ve never had to send a technician home early; we’ve never run out of work,” he went on. “Not just in the amount of work we’re getting, but also in the team we were able to build.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest talked with several area dealers to gauge the local market and the forces, well, driving it. Cars aren’t selling themselves, obviously, but in many respects this industry is on cruise control.

Pedal to the Metal

Those who spoke with BusinessWest said that, these days, the new models arrive at the dealership almost year round, unlike years ago, when all or most would be revealed in the early fall, to considerable fanfare.

Still, many new models do make their debuts as the leaves change colors, and thus this is a good time to take stock — literally and figuratively — of what’s happening at area dealerships and within this all-important sector.

Jeb Balise, seen here at his company’s Kia dealership on Riverdale Street

Jeb Balise, seen here at his company’s Kia dealership on Riverdale Street, says new-car sales are down just slightly from 2017, but still at a very high volume.

First and foremost, said Balise, this remains a buyer’s market in most all respects, even though demand remains high, especially for those trucks and SUVs. That’s because supply is also high as the manufacturers continue to make product and dealers try to move it — usually with good success.

“All of the manufacturers are producing plenty of cars, and demand is off just slightly from a year ago — just enough to put the consumer in the driver’s seat, if you will,” he told BusinessWest. “Incentives have never been better — even for SUVs.

“It’s not because there isn’t demand,” he went on, referring specifically to the SUV segment of the market. “It’s more because all the manufacturers have them now, and they’re trying to grab their piece of the pie.”

The seismic shift (another industry term) to SUVs has been ongoing for quite some time now, but it moved to an even higher gear in 2018.

Indeed, all those we spoke with said sales of SUVs now exceed those of cars (sedans) for almost all models they sell. Overall, Balise said, truck and SUV sales now account for roughly 60% of all vehicles sold and leased.

And this trend toward SUVs extends to some manufacturers renowned for their cars, such as Volkswagen and Volvo, said Cozenzi. Indeed, as she stood in the Volvo dealership recently acquired by the TommyCar Auto Group, she was surrounded by SUVs — small, medium, and large — on the small showroom floor.

They’re all selling, at Volvo and other dealerships, and especially the smaller SUVs, said Cosenzi, adding that they appeal to drivers of all ages for reasons ranging from accessibility (they’re easier to get in and out of, for most people, anyway) to decent gas mileage.

“The smaller SUVs, like the Rogue [Nissan] and the Tiguan [Volkswagen], continue to dominate,” she said. “The Rogue is the number-one-selling vehicle at the Nissan store, and it’s been that way for a few years now.”

Even Mercedes is now selling and leasing more SUVs than cars, said Wirth, adding that the company passed that milestone in 2017, and the arrow continues to move upward.

Still, there are plenty of sedans to be sold, said all those we spoke with, noting that, overall, car makers are turning out quality, easy-to-maintain products across the board, giving consumers plenty of often-hard choices to make, thus motivating the manufacturers to offer solid incentives.

And soon there will be an intriguing new choice, said Wirth, noting the arrival — probably by early next year — of the Mercedes A class, an entry-level luxury vehicle, complete with some different bells and whistles, that should bring that famous nameplate onto more driveways.

“This opens us up to a whole new customer,” he said. “You might have someone attracted to this car not because of the Mercedes-Benz design or the Mercedes-Benz safety or the brand image; it might be just because of the technology in the car. You can say, ‘hey, Mercedes, I’m cold,’ and the temperature will come up, or ‘hey, Mercedes, I’m hungry,’ and it will list the restaurants. And this is in the car that represents the entry point, not the $100,000 model.”

Staging a Coupe

Looking back on his first year of doing business in the Pioneer Valley, Peter Wirth, who previously managed a Mercedes dealership on Long Island, said this past 12 months have certainly been a learning experience.

Among the things he’s learned is that this market is somewhat more conservative than the one he left — a trait that shows up in higher volumes of used-car sales as compared to new-car transactions and more sales than leases — and also generally less aware that Mercedes is now more affordable and therefore more attainable than it has been historically because of the introduction of entry-level models.

Peter Wirth, seen here with members of the service team at Mercedes-Benz of Springfield

Peter Wirth, seen here with members of the service team at Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, says the company has exceeded all the goals it set for its first year of operation — especially in service.

“We still have some work to do on the matter of affordability,” he told BusinessWest, adding that perceptions about the Mercedes brand being beyond one’s reach remain despite more than ample evidence to the contrary. And that goes across the board, for passenger and commercial vehicles alike.

But he’s hoping that area residents will follow the lead of Jeff Bezos, who recently ordered 20,000 Sprinters (a cargo van made by Mercedes) for Amazon.

“I’m sure he did the math before he placed that order — I’m sure he sat down and looked at the life-cycle cost, the reliability, the down time, and everything else. He’s a pretty clever guy, and the fact that they committed to us says something.”

To Wirth, it says people need to look beyond the sticker price on the windshield (and Mercedes is competitive in that regard as well with many models) and look at the other ingredients that go into the equation, such as dependability, maintenance costs, convenience, and the sum of all these parts.

“We’ve been having the conversations regarding affordability, but also about how this is an amazing value proposition,” he noted. “We’re still working on it, but we’ve made great headway.”

Something Wirth didn’t need to learn, because he knew it already, is how important customer service and providing convenience are these days, especially to time-strapped, increasingly demanding customers.

“Time is money,” he said, adding that the dealership works to save customers some of that precious commodity in every way it can, from picking up a car bound for the service department at one’s home to getting them in and out of that service waiting room as soon as possible.

Cosenzi agreed, and said the TommyCar Auto Group has responded with something called Click, Drive, Buy, a new program that enables someone to buy or lease a vehicle almost entirely from home and on the internet.

“Especially at our Volkswagen store, we’re seeing a lot of our customers complete the entire transaction online and just come into the dealership to take delivery of the vehicle,” she explained. “I don’t think we anticipated that it would be as popular as it is, but people enjoy the convenience; they like buying a car this way. And it’s been popular with people of all ages.”

Gearing Up

As he brought his forefinger ever closer to his thumb while comparing sales this year to last, Balise emphasized, again, that anything at or near last year’s mark is quite good.

And while he didn’t want to make too many projections about 2019, because things can change quickly, as history shows, he implied that he may well be doing the same thing with his fingers this time next year.

That’s because the basic laws of supply and demand — not to mention an economy still in high gear — should keep this industry operating in what amounts to the status quo.

And that’s a high-octane sales climate.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Autos

Expansion Mode

Carla Cosenzi says the recently acquired Volvo dealership in South Deerfield is a perfect fit for the TommyCar Auto group.

Carla Cosenzi says the recently acquired Volvo dealership in South Deerfield is a perfect fit for the TommyCar Auto group.

Carla Cosenzi says that, like most companies in its category, the TommyCar Auto Group is always on the lookout for possible additions to the portfolio of dealerships.

But growth for the sake of growth is not what this venture — started by her father, the late Tom Consenzi, and taken to a new level by Carla and her brother, Tom — is looking for.

“It’s important for us to have the right brand at the right time and the right location moreso than just looking to grow,” she told BusinessWest, adding that all those boxes could certainly be checked with the company’s recent acquisition of Pioneer Volvo in South Deerfield.

Right location? Check. The dealership is only a few miles north on I-91 from the group’s other facilities — Northampton Volkswagen and the adjacent Country Hyundai, as well as Country Nissan on Route 9 in Hadley.

Right brand? Check. Volvo has always been renowned for its quality and focus on safety, and it has recently introduced several new models, including a small SUV, the XC40, that is turning heads in the industry.

Right time? Check. Auto sales in 2018 are just slightly off the levels set in 2017 — although the TommyCar Auto Group has registered growth over that span — but overall volume remains at very high levels.

Overall, this acquisition is solid in every respect, said Cozenzi, adding that that it gives the TommyCar Auto Group its first real entry into the luxury-car bracket, meaning a brand that won’t really compete with the three sold just down the interstate.

Meanwhile, the group’s size and economies of scale will enable it to give the Volvo dealership greater visibility and opportunities to grow.

“It’s a small dealership, and it was family-owned and operated, so we’re going to continue the same values they had,” she explained. “But since we’re a bit of a larger group, we have the ability to add more amenities than they were able to provide, but with the same core values.

“We’ll grow the brand — we’ll give the brand more exposure through advertising,” she went on. “And since we’re a larger group with more of a following, we’ll be able to attract more people to the dealership, and to Volvo.”

Given all this, it’s understandable why the TommyCar Auto Group has had its eye on the Volvo dealership for some time, and also why it moved quickly and decisively when the family-owned operation came on the market earlier this year.

“It’s a small dealership, and it was family-owned and operated, so we’re going to continue the same values they had. But since we’re a bit of a larger group, we have the ability to add more amenities than they were able to provide, but with the same core values.”

“This is a brand that we’ve been looking at for a long time because it fits in well with the other manufacturers we have in the group, it’s a great location, and it’s a perfect size for us,” she explained. “We’re really attracted to Volvo and everything it stands for in terms of luxury and convenience it provides to customers, the value of the brand, and the safety of the vehicle.”

Cozenzi said the dealership in Deerfield is, indeed, small compared to most these days, and not exactly modern. However, it is comfortable and well-appointed. She said it is likely the company will renovate it in the short term and replace it in the long term, meaning over the next several years.

In the meantime, as she said, it is a solid addition to the portfolio, a brand with a number of redesigned models, cars, and SUVs alike.

“So it’s an exciting time for us to be getting involved with the brand,” said Cosenzi, citing the XC 40 as one example of a Volvo model in strong demand. “I’m coming to learn the brand, and it’s clear that they’re very innovative.”

As an example, she noted ‘Care by Volvo,’ a comprehensive package of services that brings new layers of convenience to customers.

“They take care of the essentials when they lease you a vehicle, including insurance, maintenance, repairs, a concierge service, and more,” she said. “So you can see them changing with the times, and it’s exciting to be partners with an manufacturer that’s so on edge with what’s happening.”

Like she said … the right brand and the right time — and the right location.

— George O’Brien

Autos Sections

Driving Forces

The auto market has been in high gear for the past several years, and area dealers expect that pattern to continue, and for several reasons. These range from a solid economy and abundant consumer confidence to quality vehicles and lingering pent-up demand.

‘Flat.’

In most discussions involving business, that term has a somewhat negative connotation to it. And in many ceases, we can leave out the ‘somewhat.’

But in the case of the auto-sales industry and local dealerships … ‘flat’ has a pretty good sound to it these days. In fact, just about everyone who would use images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in their promotions this week, or tie red, white, and blue balloons to the cars in their showroom come July, would be pretty happy with ‘flat.’

Just as they were last year.

Indeed, since the very dark days during and just after the Great Recession, car sales have rebounded nicely, with the high-water mark, if you will, coming in the 2016 sales year, with nearly 17.5 million light vehicles (cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks) sold nationwide.

Last year was off that pace, but only slightly, with more than 17.1 million light vehicles sold. And the projections for 2018 are for pretty much the same, with maybe another slight decrease of 1% or less.

But, again, 1% off what? Even in the super-solid years leading up to the economic nosedive a decade ago (years 2001 to 2006), total sales were under or just slightly above 17 million.

As we said, ‘flat’ has rarely looked so good.

“Yes, last year was off what it was in 2016, but you’re coming off historic highs — and the drop was minuscule,” said Jeb Balise, CEO of Balise Motor Sales, adding (after checking his phone to make sure he had the numbers right) that sales this January were up 1% over a year ago, this despite some bitterly cold days, a few snow days for many adults, and even that dreaded bomb cyclone thing.

Jeb Balise says projections are for another flat year for auto dealers. But ‘flat’ is more than acceptable given the high volume of sales in recent years.

Jeb Balise says projections are for another flat year for auto dealers. But ‘flat’ is more than acceptable given the high volume of sales in recent years.

And the various forecasts he’s seen project sales of between 16.7 million and 16.9 million light vehicles, which would be another outstanding year.

Other dealers we spoke were equally upbeat and happy with ‘flat’ or something approximating it, and said a host of factors are contributing to solid sales and optimism that this trend will continue. A healthy stock market (until quite recently), a sound economy, still-low interest rates (albeit amid concerns that they will rise), low unemployment, large amounts of consumer confidence, well-made products, lots of inventory, attractive incentives from the manufacturers, some lingering pent-up demand, and the basics of supply and demand are all on that list.

“It’s just a good time to be buying a car,” said Don Pion, president of the Chicopee-based dealership started by his father, Bob Pion Buick GMC. “The product is good — the best I’ve seen since I’ve been in the business. They’re good products, they get good fuel economy, maintenance is pretty inexpensive on these new cars today, the manufacturers have been aggressive with their offers, there are good lease offers … it’s all good.”

Michelle Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which opened its doors last fall, concurred.

“We have a very optimistic outlook on 2018,” she said. “People are feeling good about the economic outlook, and that allows them the mindset to spend money a little more than they would have in years past.”

Meanwhile, solid sales are not the only trend within the industry on track to continue. Others include the soaring popularity of SUVs and crossovers — Wirth noted that, for the first time last year, Mercedes reported more sales of those types of vehicles than cars — and an ongoing evolution in the role of the dealership.

Indeed, where once that was a place to check out the new models, see what they cost, and explore available options, consumers can now do a lot of that, if not all of that, on the Internet. By the time they come to the dealership, they know what they want, and they know what they expect to pay. Thus, the role for those at that facility is to make the rest of the process as quick and painless as possible.

In response, TommyCar Auto Group, comprised of three dealerships selling Nissan, Hyundai, and Volkswagen, has come up with a new product called Click, Drive, Buy, whereby the consumer can do pretty much the entire buying or leasing process online, and also get a car delivered to their home for a test drive.

“They can fill out a credit application, do the pricing up front, they can go through all the financing options and rebate options and see what they qualify for, all without coming to the dealership,” said Carla Cozenzi, president of the group. “They can even research all of the after-market products like warranties and gap insurance, all of that through our website.

“We’ve evolved because we had to,” she went on, speaking for everyone in the industry. “Customers can literally do it all from their iPhone.”

Fast Times

As he talked about the current market and the forces driving it, Pion referenced one recent vehicle traded in to get some of his points across.

“It had 250,000 miles on it, but it looked like it only had about 50,000 miles on the odometer,” he told BusinessWest. “It was in great shape; you would never know it had a quarter-million miles on it.”

And this was certainly not an isolated incident, he went on, adding that these high-mileage vehicles he’s seeing on a regular basis say a lot about the market today.

They speak to the quality of the cars on the road today and their durability — “you watch the cars drive by every day, and you see a lot of older models,” said Pion — but also to the fact that, eventually, people need, or want, to turn them in.

And this lingering pent-up demand for new models — although there is much less of it than was a few years ago — is just one of many reasons why Pion’s dealership had a 2017 to remember.

Don Pion, seen here with his son, Rob, general manager of the dealership, says the soaring popularity of SUVs and crossovers has helped fuel solid sales for the industry.

Don Pion, seen here with his son, Rob, general manager of the dealership, says the soaring popularity of SUVs and crossovers has helped fuel solid sales for the industry.

Indeed, Buick sales were up 40% over 2016, he said, while GMC sales were up 30%, and used-car sales were up 20%.

Pion attributed these strong numbers to that combination of factors he described above. And while he’s not expecting a repeat, exactly, he’s projecting another very solid year.

“No one’s looking to set a record,” he told BusinessWest. “But I don’t think we’ll see any declines, only more-modest growth, perhaps.”

Consenzi agreed, and told BusinessWest that 2017 was a solid year for all three stores within the group, especially Nissan, and she is expecting improvement on those numbers across the broad in 2018.

Balise was also optimistic, and said that the pent-up demand from several years ago has been replaced by a state of general “equilibrium,” as he called it. Surveying the market now, he sees still-ample demand and considerable inventory, an intriguing mix.

“Business is good, and plenty of cars are being sold,” he explained, “but it’s a little more competitive amongst dealers, which is always good for the consumer.”

As for Wirth, she doesn’t have any numbers from last year to use as the basis for projections, or many of them, anyway.

As noted, the dealership opened its doors in September, and that last quarter or so of 2017 was essentially a time for reintroducing the brand to this region after nearly a decade’s absence, she said, adding that this process is ongoing and has many nuances to it.

Indeed, reminding people that they no longer have to drive to Hartford or Route 128 to buy a Mercedes or get one serviced is just part of the equation, she went on.

Another big part is introducing the region to the people behind that dealership with the huge Mercedes sign in front of it — and they’ve done so in ways ranging from a huge grand opening to a presence on the ice at the MassMutual Center for Thunderbirds games, to various forms of support for several area nonprofits.

Still another is educating people about the brand, how it has evolved in some ways — all those SUVs, for example — and making it clear that, in many cases, and despite popular perception, it is not beyond their reach.

“The brand stands as a symbol of success and the ultimate in luxury, and it’s just a big brand to wear,” Wirth explained. “Mercedes is not just for folks who have made it or are about to retire and end their career; it’s very much for the person who’s still climbing.”

Elaborating, she said the dealership, and Mercedes-Benz in general, are trying to attract people not of a certain age group or income bracket, but people with a certain mindset.

“They’re young at heart, they’re entrepreneurial, they enjoy craftsmanship and brands that stand for something,” said Wirth as she explained this mindset. “As for the brand, they look at it like, ‘this is this best, everyone deserves the best, so reward yourself.’”

Into a Higher Gear

Getting back to the outlook for 2018 and the factors driving those optimistic projections, one of the influencing forces is the quality of the vehicles now parked at dealerships across the region. Indeed, while those cars and SUVs with 100,000 or 200,000 or even 300,000 miles on them are still getting the job done, the products rolling off the assembly line are appealing — enough to prompt some trade-ins.

Michelle Wirth says the role of the dealership continues to evolve, and the focus now is on transparency and making the consumer’s experience as easy and painless as possible.

Michelle Wirth says the role of the dealership continues to evolve, and the focus now is on transparency and making the consumer’s experience as easy and painless as possible.

Especially the crossovers and SUVs. As noted earlier, even brands that have built their heritage on sedans, like Mercedes, are selling more SUVs than cars these days. Buick, known for most of its existence for its sedans, now has a lineup flush with SUVs and crossovers, said Pion, and there’s only one true sedan left — the LaCrosse.

The Balise company counts nearly a dozen makes in its portfolio, including Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Lexus, Mazda, Subaru, Kia, and more, and for nearly all them, SUV and crossover sales now exceed those of sedans, said Jeb Balise.

And there are many reasons for this, everything from relatively low gas prices to the additional room in the SUVs and crossovers; from the added height of such vehicles, and the fact that they’re somewhat easier to get in and out of, to their ability to take someone virtually anywhere they want to go.

“People are more active,” said Wirth. “They want to go more places and do more things, and those vehicles present themselves as being more versatile.”

Cosenzi agreed, and noted that most manufacturers, including those she represents, now have SUVs and crossovers in small, medium, large, and even micro sizes, and they are attracting consumers in all age groups. And for most people trading in a car, she said, the SUV they’re getting into will offer comparable mileage.

Even Volkswagen, which has traditionally lagged well behind in SUV and crossover sales, is making great strides with additions like the Tiguan, a smaller SUV, and the Atlas, a much larger model.

“Volkswagen always lacked in that category, but now it’s catching up,” she said. “We’re seeing it across all brands — the demand is really healthy in the SUV/crossover market.”

All that said, compact and mid-sized cars are still a huge segment of the market, said Balise, using one of the more iconic nameplates, the Toyota Camry, and some numbers off the top of his head to get his point across.

“Let’s just say Camry was selling 400,000 units and now they’re selling 315,000; that’s still a lot of momentum for that segment,” he said. “While the phenomenon is happening and it’s material — it impacts business, and we have to figure out what to do — it’s not a total-sum game. Sometimes you look at these reports and it looks like you’re never going to sell a car again, and it’s all going to be trucks — it’s not that dramatic.”

But it is still a sizable movement within the industry, as is the overall ‘dealer experience’ and the changes that have come to it, and the ever-greater emphasis on transparency and all that phrase implies.

As noted earlier, much goes into this equation, but it comes down to making life as easy as possible for the consumer during and after the buying or leasing process.

Putting it another way, Wirth said, while no one realistically expects to enjoy the car-buying process, dealers, and especially hers, are succeeding in making it far less painful that it was years ago.

How? By being up front and transparent with pricing, putting information in consumers’ hands, and adding convenience when possible, such us applying for financing online.

Balise agreed. “When it comes to the customer, their time is extremely important to them, and they don’t want to waste it,” he explained. “So when they come in, you need to be on your game and give them the information in an easy, transparent way; what you’re really doing is being as helpful as you can to help them make a decision.”

Pion echoed those thoughts, noting that a good number of people who come into a dealership ready to buy want to drive off in their new vehicle the next day — or even later that day — and dealers have to respond to such whims with inventory and an ability to get such deals done.

But these efforts to enhance the customer experience don’t end with the sale, as those in this industry like to say. Indeed, service is a huge part of the equation, especially with cars remaining on the road as long as they are, and emphasis on this part of the experience manifests itself in everything from spacious, well-appointed waiting areas to car washes built into the dealerships.

At the Mercedes dealership, said Wirth, the technician will create a video of the vehicle in for service and text it to the customer so he or she can see what the issue is.

“We’re in it for the long haul, and it’s more valuable to us and more important to us that people feel taken care of and understood,” she went on. “It’s more about how we meet people’s needs at that moment in time and have all the information at that moment.”

Full Throttle

The dealers we spoke with said those Presidents Day sales that once dominated the airwaves and turned Washington and Lincoln into pitch-people are still a part of the landscape, just not on the same scale as years ago.

Those sales were needed to propel the industry out of winter doldrums and create a bridge to spring, said Pion and Balise, both industry veterans. Today, car selling is different, and there is more of a even flow of transactions throughout the year — although a boost in February is always welcome.

That’s just part of a changing landscape in this business, where ‘transparency’ is now the watchword, and where ‘flat’ sounds really good.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]