Auto dealer Wes Lutz describes his customers as well-informed and purposeful. They often express an interest in advanced vehicle safety features, yet rarely in self-driving cars of tomorrow.
“People are just not ready for autonomous cars,” says the owner of Extreme Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram in Jackson, MI, and the 2018 chairman-designate of the National Automobile Dealers Assn.
The auto industry may focus deeply on the autonomous-vehicle development, “but the industry is further out than the public is right now,” he says, pointing to customer indifference, at least for now.
“Customers don’t ask about it, they don’t seem interested in it. Safety systems interest them, particularly people with families. But they don’t necessarily want to get in the back seat and have the car drive them.”
Advanced safety features of interest (and available on today’s vehicles) include adaptive cruise control, lane-drift detection and emergency-braking collision avoidance systems.
“A lot of the stuff we already have on cars will reduce fatality rates by as much as 80% as those features become more prevalent,” Lutz says. He notes that many of cited overall traffic fatalities involve motorcycles – vehicles that typically are not part of the self-driving discussion.
The Internet has enabled car consumers in general and his in particular to learn much about vehicles, Lutz says. “My customers as a whole are very well-informed about what they want.”
That speeds things up at the dealership. “The sales process used to take a couple hours, in and out. Now, we’re getting customers financed and delivered inside of 45 minutes. Customers know the packages, what options they want.”
He sees little brand cross-shopping in his market about 75 miles (120 km) west of Detroit.
“They’re usually shopping me against other Chrysler dealers, rather than against another brand.” That’s particularly true of pickup shoppers. “Someone interested in a Ram is not interested in a Chevy Silverado, and vice versa.”
When it comes to fixing them, the advanced nature of modern vehicles puts dealership service departments at a competitive advantage over independent shops and national car-care chains, Lutz says.
“We have to have so much OEM training because cars are so sophisticated today,” he says. “I can’t imagine Pep Boys can get the type of training my guys are getting. As we get into autonomous cars, it will be even more so.”
The downside: It’s tough to find qualified mechanics capable of working on complicated modern cars. That has been a long-standing dealer issue.
Lutz says, “I’m having a problem getting technicians, even though these are good jobs, paying $80,000 to $100,000 a year. They’re not getting $12 an hour.”
His NADA involvement started when he was named chairman of the association’s technology committee because of his early self-education in computers.
“Twenty years ago, when I built Extreme Dodge, I read computer manuals to become proficient in computers and computer networking. I wanted to use a PC-based system in the dealership. That was new idea then. I was ahead of the curve. That’s why NADA asked me to head its technology committee.”
Today, most of his customers use mobile devices to research and shop for vehicles. “We get more hits on our mobile site than on our desktop site. It’s shifting to mobile. That’s where it is. You’ve got to have a robust mobile site.”
Lutz, 63, has sold cars for 40 years. He has a daughter, 34, and a son, 31, who, when 10, came up with the name “Extreme” for the dealership his father was about to open just off I-94.
His daughter is an attorney in Madison, WI. His son, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in musical composition, recently returned to Michigan after working in Austin, TX, as a musical scorer for movies.
Neither has expressed an interest in following their father into auto retailing.
Lutz foresees dealership consolation not only continuing but also expanding more into smaller markets.
He notes the Suburban Collection (No. 17 on the WardsAuto Megadealer 100) recently bought a store in Clinton, MI. “The big dealer groups clearly are looking outside of metro areas. There will be fewer and fewer guys like me owning one store.”