DETROIT -- The Suburban Collection, a Detroit-area auto dealership group, has energized sales to customers with subprime credit by recasting a Web site and boosting online marketing.
The 25-store Suburban Collection, already a fixture in Detroit for auto sales, has gone from two subprime vehicle sales a month in April to 25 in July, said Gary Allgeier, Suburban Collection's director of finance.
That could grow threefold over the next six months at the pace the group's renovated Web site, known as Suburban Fresh Start, is cranking out online finance leads. It is also using search-engine marketing, which includes paying to be listed on the first page of an Internet search, to find subprime customers.
"This is incremental new business -- customers who weren't coming in before," Allgeier said.
Suburban, which retailed 22,900 new vehicles in 2011 of various brands, got serious about subprime in March. It started the Fresh Start Web site five years earlier, Allgeier said, but the credit crunch and recession cratered subprime sales before the brand could gain traction, he said.
Suburban decided to put resources back into the segment when subprime vehicle lending rebounded and when vendor Auto Credit Express provided fresh technical expertise, Allgeier said.
Auto Credit Express, a major supplier of subprime finance leads, revamped the Fresh Start Web site, said Rich LaLonde, president of Auto Credit Express.
It installed a credit function on the site that enabled shoppers with damaged credit to see how much they could borrow by punching in basic information about their income and debts. Prospects gathered in that manner are called credit leads or finance leads.
Then, Auto Credit Express contracted to boost Fresh Start's presence on search engines, particularly Google, where car shoppers look online for dealerships that cater to their needs, LaLonde said. Fresh Start now consistently appears on the first page of Google when shoppers type in a key phrase such as "auto loans bad credit Detroit."
Suburban's results have been impressive, Allgeier said. In July, the Fresh Start Web site generated 300 subprime leads for Suburban vs. zero three months earlier, he said.
That was so many that Suburban sold more than 100 of the leads to Auto Credit Express because they came from online shoppers outside Suburban's Detroit-area market, Allgeier said. He said he expected leads from the Web site to grow by another 300 percent over the next six months.
The leads obtained by the Web site also resulted in car sales at five times the rate of leads bought from vendors, which average about $24 each, Allgeier said.
Auto Credit Express charges Suburban $2,295 per month to provide the content and expertise to optimize Fresh Start so it appears on the pivotal first page of Google search results for car shoppers with damaged credit in Detroit.
Auto Credit Express also manages the key words and strategy for Fresh Start to appear in the paid-search portion of a Google search, which is typically in the shaded boxes atop a Google search page. That costs $595 per month plus a 15 percent commission on the overall Google ad spend, LaLonde said.
Auto Credit Express handles only the subprime part of Suburban's overall search-engine optimization and paid search effort.
Allgeier said Suburban stores changed processes to handle subprime shoppers. Each store now has a specialist for subprime shoppers to find financing for their vehicles from an expanded list of lenders, he said.
Salespeople have been trained to start conversations with subprime buyers about financing, not cars, because that's their top priority.
And the dealership group even changed the caller ID it used when telephoning or texting subprime prospects. The old ID said "Suburban Collection," which was easy to misinterpret as a bill collection agency, Allgeier said.
He said, "We realized pretty quickly that had to be changed."