Dealers' green policies, not just cars, draw shoppers

The sweeping roof extensions at Mercedes-Benz of Arrowhead in Peoria, Ariz., maximize shade in the summer and heat and natural light in the winter.
Chuck Theisen, owner of Mercedes-Benz of Arrowhead in Peoria, Ariz., wants potential buyers to know he cares about the environment.

The Phoenix area dealer shows off his environmentally friendly dealership in local TV spots and talks about his green practices in radio commercials and print ads. When consumers walk into his showroom, they are greeted with a color brochure outlining the store's eco credentials.

The brochure highlights such green features at the store as sweeping roof extensions and canopy screens that maximize shade in the summer and heat and natural light in the winter, rooftop parking that reduces land use, roof-mounted solar panels that shade cars and generate up to 35 percent of the building's power during off-peak hours, and a carwash that uses only 6 gallons per car vs. 20 gallons for the typical retail center carwash.

"We've had people call us up way on the other side of our competitor and say they are coming to us because we're a green dealer," says Theisen, who advertises his store as "Arizona's only green dealership."

Going green at retail
Top green retail marketers give these tips.
-- Green message should be secondary to brand, product and dealership reputation.
-- Donít promote eco principles unless your dealership lives by them.
-- Make sure employees are trained to talk about those principles.
-- Get involved in community-based organizations that promote conservation.
-- Highlight the green products in your store.

Few on board

But Theisen is a rarity among car dealers, experts say. While manufacturers continue to position themselves as environmentally conscious through national advertising and other marketing activities, few local retailers have followed suit.

Why? Experts say dealers know that most car buyers are concerned more about the price of the vehicle than whether the dealer recycles the water in his carwash or uses less energy to light his showroom.

But that could be changing soon. Ron Kogan, editor of Green Car Journal, predicts a growing number of dealers will pick up the green message as the industry's fleet of environmentally friendly vehicles expands and consumers make protecting the environment a higher priority.

"The number of people who care about green dealerships and recycling properties is a very minute part of the car-buying public," says Kogan, whose publication covers hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles. "But we see the trends developing. People want to be green. Dealerships are going to want to stand out from their peers."

Last fall, General Motors conducted a study among car shoppers who were actively looking to buy. It found that "consumers appeared more interested in environmentally friendly facilities" than the company thought, says Bill Hepburn, green project manager for GM's dealer network, planning and investment area. Hepburn declined to provide specifics. But a GM spokesperson says a second, more in-depth study on how consumers feel about buying from green dealers will be available this summer.

A second study also affirms that at least some customers care about a dealer's environmental credentials. A recent CNW Marketing Research weekly Purchase Path telephone survey asked car shoppers about their willingness to seek out green dealers.

Customers care

Among shoppers who are within three months of buying a new car, 58 percent said they would favor a green dealer over the same-make dealership without a green program even if the price of the vehicle were somewhat — say, 1 to 4 percent — higher, the study found.

Of those who are used-car intenders within four weeks of buying, 32 percent said they would favor a green dealer over one without a green program even if the vehicle were priced somewhat higher — say, 1 to 2.5 percent.

Based on previous green studies done by CNW with follow-up surveys on consumer actions, roughly 40 percent of those who say they will buy green actually do so, CNW President Art Spinella told Automotive News in an e-mail.

That means 24 percent of new-vehicle shoppers and about 12 percent of used-vehicle shoppers would actually buy from a green dealer, rather than from a dealer with no environmental program.

Ads for Pat Lobb Toyota of McKinney say the Texas dealership uses rainwater runoff to irrigate and passes the savings along to buyers.

Green payoff

Dealers who are marketing their stores as environmentally conscious say their efforts are reaping rewards.

Just ask Pat Lobb, owner of Pat Lobb Toyota of McKinney in McKinney, Texas. Last month, Lobb launched a TV advertising campaign featuring a cartoon spokesman talking about how the dealership uses rainwater runoff to irrigate its landscaping and passes on the cost savings to customers. "Being green can save you some green," the commercials say.

"We've had customers drive hundreds of miles to come to this dealership to buy a vehicle because it's green," says Lobb, who plans to add another round of environmental talking points to the spots.

In March, LaFontaine Buick-Pontiac-GMC-Cadillac in Highland Township, Mich., began running a campaign in Detroit area media promoting the June 2 opening of a new, Earth-friendly store. The family-run dealership, part of LaFontaine Automotive Group, has been overwhelmed with the response from customers.

"We've received multiple phone calls and e-mails from people saying they would buy from us and make the drive if we are truly green," says Ryan LaFontaine, general manager of LaFontaine Automotive Group. He hopes to receive gold certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program. The U.S. Green Building Council awards buildings that meet strict criteria with regular, silver, gold or platinum certification.

Pat Lobb Toyota earned silver last year when it became the first dealership to obtain LEED certification. In April, Toyota of Rockwall in Rockwall, Texas, opened the first gold-certified dealership.

Says LaFontaine: "My eyes have been opened to a whole different marketing strategy. Everything that we do marketingwise will have a green theme."

Marketing minefield

But painting a dealership as eco-friendly can be tricky. Lobb says it's important the green message does not overshadow the brand or its products.

"You establish yourself as a known quantity in the community and present your products," he says. "And, oh, by the way, it becomes a pleasant surprise that we're doing our part for the ecology of the globe and where we live."

Jeff Morrill, owner of Planet Subaru in Hanover, Mass., agrees.

"The green decision is part of a much larger set of factors that the customer considers," says Morrill, whose eco-friendly dealership opened in 2002.

"You don't say, 'Buy a car and we'll plant a tree.' People who are concerned about the Earth can see through gimmicks. You have to actually be green."

Instead of green-themed advertising, Morrill has placed information about the dealership's building and energy conservation program on its Web site, www.planetsubaru.com. Planet Subaru also sponsors the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.

Chris Haydocy, a Columbus, Ohio, GM dealer involved in several organizations to develop clean fuels and promote energy conservation in his state, also says he does not include a green message in his dealership's advertising.

Haydocy says he built his store, Haydocy Pontiac-Buick-GMC, 10 years ago before LEED-certified build-ings were in vogue. Instead of green ads, he supports organizations such as Clean Fuels Ohio and serves on the board of the new Energy Institute at Hocking College, southeast of Columbus. Haydocy also educates consumers on the benefits of E85 on his Web site, www.haydocy.com, and in his showroom.

Says Haydocy: "I don't know what verbiage I can put in (advertising) to make a compelling argument that I'm green; I don't want to beat my drum."

You can reach Laura Clark Geist at autonews@crain.com

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