Appearance products fight to stay on menu

Shorter F&I product menus are crowding all but a few top sellers right off the menu, which can leave vehicle appearance products, such as exterior finish and fabric protection, fighting for a spot.

Add to that possible legal scrutiny of F&I products in general -- some experts worry that aggressive regulation of dealer markup on auto loans could spill over into F&I products -- and appearance products could falter.

Two of the nation's biggest retail groups, AutoNation Inc. and Group 1 Automotive Inc., say they restrict F&I menus to a short list of "value added" products, headed by extended service contracts. AutoNation said this year it emphasizes just two products: service contracts and prepaid maintenance. The companies also say they limit dealer markup on F&I products.

Steve Amos, president of GSFSGroup in Houston, says his company doesn't even offer appearance products. "There's only so many menu items you have room for," he said.

The company offers extended service contracts; GAP; tire-and-wheel coverage; limited powertrain warranties; and credit insurance. GAP covers the difference when insurance payouts don't cover the unpaid loan or lease balance on a car that's stolen or totaled.

GSFSGroup also offers service contracts aimed at lease customers. Those include windshield repair and paintless dent repair as part of the package.

To be sure, appearance products have strong supporters, too.

John Pappanastos, CEO of EFG Cos. in Dallas, says he can't imagine not offering appearance products, based on the demand from dealers and consumers. The company's appearance products use the Signature Finish brand name.

"What we offer is a function of what consumers demand and what dealers want," Pappanastos said. "Appearance packages are some of the most valuable ones we offer. They're the ones I would buy."

Justin Gasman, finance director for McCaddon Cadillac-Buick-GMC in Boulder, Colo., said sales penetration at his dealership is good for appearance products. For instance, he said sales penetration is 20 to 25 percent for an aftermarket product called Clear Bra.

Clear Bra is a clear, exterior film that protects a car's hood, fenders, mirrors and door handles from gravel chips. That's the base Gold package. Higher levels of coverage are optional. Gasman said stone damage is common in his market because the local roads are sanded when it snows, and the sand is often full of gravel.

He said he tries to be consistent with pricing, although, theoretically, he could charge customers what the market will bear. "We start everybody at $595," he said, for an upgraded Platinum package.

The product is an easy sell to people who have had it before, he said. "We present it on the menu to every customer, every time. Everybody gets the same presentation. A lot of times people have it on their trade-in, and they just say they want it again."

You can reach Jim Henry at autonews@crain.com

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