CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sonic Automotive Inc.'s Retail Trade Center is appraising some 16,000 vehicles a month as it looks to acquire more used-vehicle inventory and provide customers in the stores it serves a quick, attractive and accurate trade-in value.
The laid-back office in Sonic's headquarters, staffed with two dozen people, had a soccer game playing on several large TV screens during a summer visit. The office, serving the nation's fifth largest new-vehicle and sixth largest used-vehicle retailer is the central source of trade-in values for Sonic's 86 franchise and eight EchoPark standalone used-vehicle stores. It also is providing quotes for Sonic's CarCash vehicle appraisal app, now in the pilot stage.
Rob Dempster, director of the center, said his employees provide up to 600 appraisals on a weekday and up to 1,200 on Saturdays.
As appraisals in the queue pop up on screens in the room, staff such as Seth Correll, trade center team leader for Alabama, North Carolina and Florida, grab them and return a value to the store within five minutes, Correll said.
The trade center, part of Sonic for a decade, is an asset to the company and a competitive advantage, Sonic President Jeff Dyke said. He said appraisals across the industry can take 45 minutes, citing his experience in the field.
"I don't know of any competitor that has the level of sophistication and the technology and the experience that we have in our trade center," Dyke said.
The center works in concert with dealership salespeople. The sales staff do a walk-around of the vehicle and, using an iPad or a phone, provide the VIN, year, make, model and other information such as vehicle scratches and condition of the tires, Dempster said.
Sonic has proprietary technology it uses to help make its decisions. It uses information from window stickers, internal sales data and even sites such as Autotrader for market-specific sales listings.
Correll pulls up one appraisal in the queue, a Lexus sedan. "So this one here, they notice a smell from the smoker car, it needs two front tires and they're saying they estimate $1,500 in recon," he said.
Correll plugs the VIN into a system to give him a snapshot. He also has access to wholesale data and to Lexus' website, where he can see what options the vehicle was sold with. He can also see what vehicles have been sent to auction, what's in stock and similar vehicles Sonic has appraised.
The Lexus car is a good one, with good miles, he said, with the only blemish being that it was smoked in. Still, he said, "every car, there's a butt for every seat."
Dempster said each vehicle stands on its own and there's no set discount for a vehicle being smoked in.
"You might on a Lexus like this. It might hurt this car a little more than it does a $10,000 Corolla," Dempster said.
Added Correll, "But not as much as a $70,000 S class."
Within three minutes, Correll declares the car's value at about $18,900.
Dempster said while his team has data to look at and guide decisions, ultimately it's up to his staff to put a number on the car. Customer appraisals at EchoPark stores are good for 14 days or 500 miles, while terms at Sonic stores may vary.
"And the good thing about the office is, there's kind of a wide range of guys in here. Like, we've got guys who are into, like, the tuner import cars," Correll said. "We've got guys who enjoy lifted trucks, modified Jeeps, so we kind of bounce, like, the unique stuff off the room."