A 60-minute sell

Dealer's one-hour infomercial is latest in string of creative marketing efforts

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Pete Franklin Company: Pete Franklin's National Auto Sales Inc. Where: Overland Park, Kan. Age: 54 Title: President Annual revenues: $45 million Stores: Franklin's National Suzuki, Kansas City, Mo.; Pete Franklin's National Auto Sales, Overland Park, Kan. Franchise: Suzuki How I come up with my best ideas: "It just kind of springs from me. I am a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day car guy. I make notes in my car. I'll be driving along one day and come up with a good idea."

While other dealers ponder how to capture TV viewers' attention in 30 to 60 seconds, Pete Franklin has them hooked for an hour.

Franklin, 54, president of Pete Franklin's National Auto Sales Inc. in Overland Park, Kan., developed a template for TV advertising that grabs viewers by simulating a live telethon.

In an economic downturn, his sales are up 20 percent from last year. Franklin attributes the jump to the hour-long infomercials he has been running from 11 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. The simulated telethon can triple a normal day's sales, he said.

"We did really well with the infomercials," Franklin said. "The guy who did my commercials for me took the format and went nationwide with it, selling it to other dealers."

The infomercial is the latest in a succession of effective gimmicks Franklin has used over the years to boost sales. The Suzuki dealer has a large used-car business out of his two Kansas City-area lots and caters to the subprime market.

Pumping up sales

Franklin began in 1968 as a Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealer. That store is closed, but he held other multifranchise dealerships over the past three decades and ran an automotive sales consulting business from 1984 to 1994. Franklin has been in the used-car business since 1994, and he obtained a Suzuki franchise, which is in Kansas City, Mo., in June.

"I could take any store and pump the sales up," said Franklin, who has built his current used-car business to 200 units a month, from 30 units a month in 1994.

He builds campaigns based on the trends he spots from talking to customers on the showroom floor. Are people concerned about debt? He offers breaks on the interest rate. Are they concerned they can't get financed? He offers competitive subprime financing.

Franklin has given some customers what he calls a "cookie jar" deal, which is a dealer rebate he spreads over the first year of financing.

A $600 rebate, spread over 12 months, has the effect of cutting the monthly payment by $50.

"Somebody comes in and can't afford a $450 a month payment because he has other payments he is making," Franklin said. "I tell him what if I made your payments $400 a month for the next year and I give you a check for $50 a month that year?"

Franklin has also promoted a debt-consolidation deal in which he offers to pay off customers' credit card debt. Some banks are willing to finance a car for up to 135 percent of the vehicle's book value, depending on the customer's creditworthiness, he said. The customer uses the difference between the car's value and the amount of the loan to pay off the credit card.

The customer wins because the interest rate for a car loan is much less than the rate the customer is paying on a credit card. "The customer might pay 20 percent on his credit card, but 7 percent on a car loan," Franklin said.

Keith Whann, a Dublin, Ohio, dealer attorney and former assistant attorney general, said dealers should check the legality of the promotion because state laws vary.

Simulated telethon

Franklin began simulated telethons in early 1997 with 30-minute infomercials that targeted subprime customers. Only recently did he bump the time to an hour and widen the message to prime-credit customers.

Franklin said his dealership can get as many as 400 calls in a day from the infomercial, and the impact continues through the week.

"The phones don't stop ringing," said Joe Spector, president of Spector Advertising in Overland Park, which produces Franklin's advertising. "Pete does some big numbers on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday."

Infomercials account for about $8,000 of the $30,000-$40,000 he spends each month on advertising.

The approach is simple:

  • Buy time in bulk - for example, four consecutive Saturdays - on an independent station or cable station. Pick time slots that are less competitive to get reasonable rates. Franklin booked the 11-to-noon Saturday slot for a year on a local independent station.

  • Hire a master of ceremonies to draw people to the dealership. Franklin's master of ceremonies tells viewers the dealership is taking credit applications over the phone and promises them the transaction will be quick and painless. The routine is taped in a busy showroom.

  • Hire a telemarketing crew to field phone calls from prospects.

  • Tape the dealer or another spokesperson walking through the lot vehicle by vehicle, talking about their benefits and promoting discounted prices.

  • Tape testimonials from customers.

  • Keep the program moving by rotating from the showroom to a testimonial and back to the lot. Spend most of the time on the lot showing cars and trucks.

  • Give the campaign a catchy title. Franklin calls his infomercials "Great Deals on Wheels."

    The key to hooking viewers, said Franklin, is to show off the cars and sell the benefits. People like the ability to shop from the convenience of their homes.

    "Here's a '98 Taurus," he says, as he works his way through the lot in the infomercial. "I bought this back from Ford Motor Co., and it was on a Red Carpet lease. And this is a Dodge Stratus. I've got six of these advertised at a special $14,995. It's a lot of car for the money."

    Taking a gamble

    Franklin is doing more than six times the business he did in 1994, but he has learned to increase sales by trial and error. Like any other innovator, he has had to tinker with his ideas to make them work.

    Even the best ideas often require tweaking. While customers seem intrigued with the telethon format, Franklin tried running the infomercials late at night, and the campaign flopped.

    He has bought and sold dealerships over the years, ultimately succeeding because he didn't give up.

    "I am dedicated and focused," Franklin said. " You have got to be in the hunt all the time or you will be left behind."

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