Canadian dealer Amy Schlueter, the mother of young twins, is pairing two business ideas into a novel marketing package.
Schlueter, 36, is expanding the conventional 10-minute test drive into a 48-hour offer that extends to a variety of vehicles, whether or not the customer is seriously considering a purchase.
As part of Schlueter Automotive Group's program, it asks customers to tweet about their driving experience at least three times a day during the test drive period. The Waterloo, Ontario, business has 1,070 Twitter followers.
Schlueter, vice president of the family-owned business started by her grandfather, said the Twitter Test Drive is meant not to generate immediate sales but to get potential customers acquainted with the group's stores and talking about the vehicles they drive.
"We recognize that people start shopping three or four months before they buy," she said. "It's about getting people to put us on their shopping list, have us under consideration and stay with us for life."
One customer who took a test drive was Joseph Fung, a Waterloo technology executive who was a professional acquaintance of Schlueter's husband, Stephen Heron.
Fung, 30, test drove the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid in June 2009.
"You don't normally get a chance to see how a new car fits into your day-to-day routine," he said.
Fung, who had previously bought only import-brand cars, said the test drive opened his eyes to the merits of Detroit 3 vehicles.
Six months later, Fung bought a used 2008 Pontiac Vibe from a Schlueter store.
The test drivers tweet car reviews that can have more credibility with readers than those written by journalists, Schlueter said. The comments of no more than 140 characters bounce around the Internet and take on a life of their own.
One blogger, an executive for a Waterloo technology company, saw a tweet from a Schlueter customer saying he was on a two-day test drive. "This is unheard of," he blogged in 2009. "Works for me!"
The test drive process begins when shoppers complete a Twitter Test Drive form on the auto group's Web site. They are contacted by Heron, who reviews the program with them.
High-end vehicles and those in short supply aren't allowed. The group's three dealerships have a total of 15 vehicles available for Twitter Test Drives, compared with more than 500 vehicles available for standard 10-minute test drives.
The extended test drives are permitted only during the week. Driving distance is restricted to 800 kilometers, about 500 miles. Customers can take vehicles home and drive without a salesperson present. A standard service rental contract is used.
Drivers get a full tank of gasoline and don't need to replenish it.
The cost to the dealership of each test drive -- the gasoline, the salesperson's time and the depreciation of the vehicle -- comes to less than $500, Schlueter estimated. There have been no accidents.
The program extends from April to October, when warmer weather increases customers' interest in test drives, she said. The most popular vehicles to test drive have been the Acura TL, Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Traverse.
Schlueter Automotive Group consists of Chevrolet, Hyundai and Acura dealerships within about 10 minutes of one another in Waterloo and Kitchener, in a technology and agricultural area about an hour west of Toronto.
The founder of the business, Amy's grandfather Harold Schlueter, opened a Toyota store in 1968 that he later turned into the current Chevrolet dealership. Now 85 and semiretired, he remains chairman of the group.
Harold and son Dennis, Amy's father, added the two other franchises, most recently Hyundai in 2007. Dennis Schlueter, 60, is president of the business and dealer principal.
Amy joined the company in 1998, a day after handing in her University of Waterloo master's thesis on Canadian newspapers' political influence in the 1920s. Her husband is marketing director, and her brother-in-law, Jake Thomas, 34, is general manager of the Hyundai store.
The auto group competes with three Chevrolet and three Hyundai stores within 12 miles and three Acura dealerships within 46 miles.
Last year, the Schlueter stores sold 2,206 vehicles -- 1,386 new and 820 used -- up from 1,960 in 2009 and 1,884 in 2008.
Amy Schlueter is reviving a program she started in early 2009, during the depth of the recession. "I get ideas in the middle of the night," she said.
"One time I blurted out to my husband: 'What if we give cars away and talk about them on Twitter?'"
Schlueter and Heron, 36, read everything they could about Twitter and spoke for weeks with his technology contacts.
In May 2009, the auto group announced the program in its 8,000-subscriber newsletter. "We were unsure how it was going to go," she said. "Twitter is like a big gathering at a luncheon. You use your everyday conversational skills."
Perhaps the biggest obstacles were the doubts of the sales staff.
"It was culture shock for them," Schlueter said. "Their mentality was: 'I'm going to be without this vehicle for two days? What if someone else wants to drive it?' My response was: 'Someone WILL be driving it. The walls won't fall down.' "
The program was put on hold in 2010 when Amy gave birth to twins Emma and Xavier in May. During the hiatus, the auto group built up its 200-follower Twitter account by making regular postings about industry news, local stories and children's and medical causes the group sponsors.
This year's program was announced last week in the customer newsletter. Schlueter expects it to be more successful than the one two years ago.
She said: "The staff had a wait-and-see attitude then, and now they're completely on board."