To outsiders, the Berlin City Auto dealership in Gorham, N.H., may seem like it's in a limited market.
It's in a rural area with about 13,000 people nestled at the base of the White Mountains, where winters are snowy and cold. And the local economy is reeling from the closure of two paper mills in recent years.
But the dealership, with 10 domestic and foreign franchises, mostly has thrived for a quarter century -- currently with a business model developed more than a decade ago and turbocharged by the Internet age.
The dealership, run by General Manager Ed Watson, leapfrogs the local market by using color catalogs to build a customer base as far as 12 hours away in Vermont, Maine, New York and Massachusetts.
As a result, about 40 percent of vehicle sales are to customers who use phone and e-mail to discuss purchases while never setting foot in the store. Berlin City Auto also combines aggressive pricing with personal services such as delivering cars and picking up trade-ins.
A number of long-distance customers who were drawn to the store by word-of-mouth now sing its praises.
"We have lots of car dealers in our area, but none can offer the deals and service of Berlin City," says Gordie Little, 72, a journalist who lives four hours away in Morrisonville, N.Y.
The entire five-store Berlin City Automotive Group in New England relies heavily on long-distance sales. It consists of the Gorham store run by Watson; a smaller General Motors outlet a mile away; two dealerships in South Portland, Maine; and one in Williston, Vt.
The group's owner, Summit Automotive Partners in Denver, is considering expanding the marketing technique to all 15 of its outlets in Colorado, Tennessee and New England, says Summit CEO Rod Buscher, one of the group's owners.
The controlling partner at Summit is George Gillett, an American businessman who once owned the Montreal Canadiens professional hockey team and now owns the Liverpool professional soccer team in the United Kingdom and the Richard Petty Motorsports NASCAR auto racing team.