An emerging theory in automotive retailing is that teens just don't get excited about cars anymore. Try telling that to four classes of recently graduated seniors in south-central Florida.
In June, executives from Alan Jay Automotive Network in Sebring, Fla., gave away four late-model cars -- three 2012 Nissan Versas and a 2011 Chevrolet Impala -- to students at four local high schools, delivering a suspenseful ending to the schools' graduation ceremonies. The cars are intended to give graduates wheels for their college years.
Since establishing the Wheels for A's program in 1998, Alan Jay Automotive has given away 54 vehicles valued at more than $600,000. The company springs for taxes and registration, too.
The program has built considerable visibility for Alan Jay: This year's giveaways were presented in front of a combined 7,000 graduating seniors and family members. But dealer principal Alan Jay Wildstein says Wheels for A's isn't just a marketing play.
"In this business, we do certain things to sell more cars and other things because we care about the community and the kids in it," says Wildstein, 45. "It is a big expense, so I certainly hope it has a return. But we don't do it for the return."
Here's how it works: Each spring, seniors from four local high schools -- next year it will be five -- can drop off their report cards at an Alan Jay dealership. Sales associates register students for the drawing, and the grades are verified with the school district.
For each "A" earned during the first three academic quarters, a student gets one entry in the car raffle.
This year, nearly 400 seniors submitted nearly 5,000 A's, both record numbers for the 16-year-old program, says Randy Leonard, Alan Jay's operations director and contest administrator.
The cars are from the certified-used lot. They're picked to match the school's colors and are displayed outside the schools before each graduation ceremony. The car drawing comes at the end of the commencement ceremony, after diplomas are in hand.
Wildstein says the drawing is done without a sales pitch or any hint of advertising.
Wally Cox, who since 2000 has been superintendent of schools for Highlands County school district, which includes three of the four high schools, says Wheels for A's has been "very well received" by parents, teachers and administrators.
"It generates a lot of excitement," Cox says. "I've never heard a complaint."
Cox says it helps that Wildstein also is a generous donor to local education. Since 1995, a scholarship fund set up by Wildstein and a local chamber of commerce has awarded more than $100,000 to about 30 students.
Wildstein grew up in Miami and worked at his father's Chevrolet store while in high school before leaving to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration from Northwood University in Michigan. In 1992 he acquired his first dealership, a Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Nissan store. He has built it into a 13-store group selling Chevrolet, Buick-GMC, Nissan, Ford, Lincoln, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, Kia and Toyota. In 2012 the group sold 3,300 new and used vehicles.
While Alan Jay Automotive says it doesn't focus on the return on investment, it does see some return business.
A 2006 winner, who used his car to commute to Jacksonville for business courses, returned to buy a new Nissan Pathfinder. Several years ago another previous winner flew down from Boston, where he had just finished medical school, to purchase his first new car, a Nissan Altima.
"We've been blessed to be able to do this 54 times," Wildstein says of the giveaways. "And we're going to keep doing it."