Why Call Them Auto Dealers?

Why Call Them Auto Dealers?

Let’s stop calling car dealers car dealers.

That’s what Chuck Parker proposes. He’s an auto journalist who has covered the industry a long time. He doesn’t hesitate to tell people what he thinks, often framed as a question, but typically accompanied by his nice-guy grin.

“Why do you call yourself dealers?” Parker asks a couple of them at an American Financial Services Assn. automotive conference. “Right off the bat, it says someone is dealing.”

Well, it’s not like they’re dealing drugs, but I guess I get his point. It spooks car shoppers if they think they’re dealing with a wheeler-dealer type.

That’s why auto retailing has shifted to a softer sell, price transparency and an emphasis on a pleasant experience for customers who feel fairly treated. But no name changes accompanied all that.

One of the people to whom Parker asks his question is AutoNation’s e-commerce vice president, Famous Rhodes. He’s the son of a dealer who apparently had really high expectations for his son, or at least didn’t use a book of common boys’ names when he picked Famous.

Rhodes recalls using the word “dealership” during a conversation with Michael Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, the country’s largest dealership chain. “Mike said, ‘We don’t have dealerships, we have stores.’” A  lot of business people can say that, but they don’t sell motor vehicles.

Toyota dealer Brian McCafferty fields Parker’s name-change suggestion by diplomatically saying, “It’s something we should look at.” 

Dropping the dealer moniker could cause a ripple effect. Would the National Automobile Dealers Assn. become something else? Would we take a chisel to our WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine?

At the conference, Rhodes turns to Gary Tucker, CEO of the review website DealerRater, and says: “Maybe your company’s name should be changed to StoreRater.”

If we start referring to dealerships as stores, let’s get creative. We could go quaint: “Ye Olde Car-iosity Shoppe.” Or cute: “Cars R Us."  

Tucker is noncommittal about retitling DealerRater, but he offers a proposed change of his own. He suggests dropping “salesperson” from the dealership vernacular.

Players proffer replacement names. “Product specialist” works famously for Rhodes.

Motor Trend’s Charlie Vogelheim tongue-in-cheek (I think) comes up with “experience guide,” as in someone who escorts customers during their car-buying journey. (“This way to the wondrous F&I office, folks.”)

Oh, about those customers. Some dealers have quit calling them that, on the premise it sounds too common. So they'll refer to “clients” or “guests.” The latter would fit nicely if Marriott or Westin got in the car business.

However named, the reference is to people who go to a dealership (a.k.a. store), talk with a salesperson (a.k.a. product specialist) and work out a deal (a.k.a. experience).

Quick-witted Vogelheim gets serious (I think) when he says, “I’ll defend the word ‘dealer.’ It’s used holistically.” Holistically? I thought we were talking about selling cars, not practicing medicine.

Parker tells me he’d replace “dealer” with “retailer.” No seismic change there.

Or we can just keep calling them dealers. Unless they sell vintage cars. Then we could call them antique dealers. But wait, that name’s already taken.

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