Buick will continue its transition to becoming a premium brand in 2004, says Conrad Darby, co-chair of the Buick National Dealer Council.
Darby says Buick will be all new in 2005; the challenge for dealers is staying profitable until then.
Buick finally has an SUV, the Rainier, and the Terraza minivan will hit showrooms in the third quarter of 2004. Dealers hope aggressive marketing will follow the new product.
Darby, owner of Darby Buick in Sarasota, Fla., was interviewed by Staff Reporter K.C. Crain.
How are things with Buick dealers?
We have a lot of new product coming and a lot of older product that we are still successful with, but we're busy trying to transition Buick back to the premium spot. This year will continue the transition, and in 2005 there will be an all-new Buick.
What are the hot Buick products?
The Rendezvous is still selling extremely well, and the Rainier is going to be a home run. The Rendezvous will be getting an Ultra version, which will have more power.
What are the priorities for the dealer council?
Our priorities are to get us to the new product, which is going to take some marketing efforts. Buick is pretty fortunate that both (Vice Chairman Robert) Lutz and (GM North America President Gary) Cowger have been very understanding about the need for a little more marketing than maybe at some of the other divisions.
How involved is the dealer council in factory-driven programs?
Not as involved as I'd like.
What was the biggest disappointment for the dealer council in 2003?
Not being able to get any of the new products pulled forward, which we begged and pleaded for. These things have to follow a very structured regiment, but we really were hopeful that we'd get newer product sooner.
GM has been very supportive in giving us what they could afford to give us. They've been very aggressive on incentives for Buick, and they've been pretty liberal in letting us do some programs that are Buick specific.
What doesn't the factory understand about your customers?
Same thing I've been saying for 50 years. They're my customers, not the factory's customers. I believe John Smith (group vice president, North America vehicle sales, service and marketing) believes the statement, "We'll build them, you sell them." That's the way it should be.
What can the factory do to help Buick dealers?
We'd like to see more flexibility in the incentive arena. Let us make a decision on how we can best meet the customers' needs rather than just give us a one-size-fits-all program. Every customer has different needs on how the deal is actually structured. One guy may be a lease customer, but his hot button is the residual, not the rate. Another guy might not care what the residual is, but he wants to know what the rate is. Right now, we don't have flexibility to move those numbers around.
What are the top concerns of the dealer council?
Our top concern is profitability with our current portfolio. We know that the future is going to be great. We're probably no different than Cadillac dealers five or six years ago. We've got to do everything we can to enhance our profit opportunities until we get this new product.
We need to be far more aggressive in advertising and marketing. More advertising funds is one of the things that I'm hoping we're going to get. One of the things that happens is as your volume goes down naturally, so do your media expenditures because it's pretty well on a per car basis. And we're way behind where we used to be.
What does the factory say?
The same thing that I'd say if I was working for the factory: "Look, guys, we only have so much money."
I think with our product portfolio Buick is probably more of a challenge than a Cadillac or Chevrolet. And that's traditional at GM. There's always one division that's the rising star, and the other divisions are waiting their turn.
Are Buick dealers making money on new-car sales?
Most of the Buick dealers I talk to say they are. I can only speak accurately for myself, and we are. It's not easy, but we're doing it.
How do you use the Internet?
The Internet is a great source of information, but it doesn't sell anything.
What is the most important thing you bring back from the advisory board to your dealership?
Hope for the future. The best things I can bring back right now are details on future product. As you say in Detroit, the only thing that counts is product.