Multilingual staff can drive up auto sales

By Chris Woodyard

Buyers of all nationalities and races many of them immigrants flock to the dealership where the staff speaks more than 30 languages and dialects. From Vietnamese to Punjabi, the sounds of many tongues float across the cavernous, open sales floor.

Catering to multiple ethnicities has proved to be a winning formula. Longo came in first on industry tracker Ward's 2004 list of top-selling dealerships. It sold 20,320 new vehicles last year an average of 56 cars and trucks every day on a lot so big that it has its own Starbucks and Subway shops.

Other dealers manufacturers, too are realizing the value of catering to ethnic and immigrant markets across the country, mirroring changes in the communities where they sell.

They are trying to become more culturally attuned. Some dealers are adding aftermarket accessories to tailor cars to young Hispanics or seeking out feng shui experts to avoid architectural mistakes that can turn off some Asians.

And they are hiring more diverse staffs. Combined, the percentage of Hispanics and African-Americans employed by dealerships doubled from 1990 to 2004 to nearly 15%, CNW Marketing Research reports. The percentage of Asian employees was flat.

A diverse staff can make a difference. Buyers say they often develop a bond with a salesperson, something that's easier to do when they share the same cultural background. "In the Philippines, you build your business based on trust," says two-time Longo customer Peter See, 58, of Montebello, Calif., who turns to salesman and fellow Filipino immigrant Mel Castelo, a friend from church. "I know he won't sell me down the primrose path."

The immigrant population, both legal and illegal, now numbers more than 34 million, the Census Bureau says in a report today. That means almost one in eight people living in the USA was born in another country, the highest percentage since the 1920s.

Those immigrants have huge buying power. Hispanics and Asians together are a $1-trillion-a-year market. Cars are at the top of the wish list. Hispanics and Asians bought more than 3 million new cars and trucks last year out of 16.7 million sold, according to an American International Automobile Dealers Association analysis of CNW data.

Paying attention to ethnic customers "is a smart thing for anyone selling cars to do," says Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "It's a growing market."

Some car dealers are on the front line of seeing how attitudes toward the newcomers are changing in the heartland. When Susan Schein ran Spanish-only TV ads in 1999 to lure customers to her Pelham, Ala., dealerships, the response was overwhelming.

"Immediately, I started getting calls from people saying didn't I know this was America," recalls Schein, a Chevrolet and Dodge dealer. She found her telephone operator in tears after receiving a slew of insults.

Today, Schein says, Spanish-language ads bring shrugs. The fast-growing Birmingham metro area has seen an influx of not only Hispanics, but also Vietnamese and Chinese. Immigrant businesses have become commonplace, says Schein, who gets her nails done at the Vietnamese salon across the street. "I was just too far ahead of my time," she says.

The most successful dealers at luring ethnic customers go beyond learning the language. "It's learning about the culture, values and purchasing preferences of specific ethnic groups," says Marianne McInerney, president of the AIADA. Dealers are:

Reaching out. Hispanics often don't just show up, says Yrma Rico, CEO of Weber BMW in Fresno, Calif. "The Hispanic buyer is not going to come to your dealership if you don't invite him in," she says. More dealers are extending a welcome.

Once a year, Fort Myers Toyota in Florida clears the sales lot for Hispanic Appreciation Day. About 2,500 visitors typically show up for the bands, talent show, food and job booths, general manager John Marazzi says. "When they show up, there's no cars and no salespeople," he says. "It's all about the event."

Rob Bennett, a Toyota dealer in Allentown, Pa., has long sold cars to local Syrian- and Greek-Americans, but wants to get to know the area's recent Hispanic arrivals, as well.

After a successful holiday party last year at a local social club popular with Hispanics, the dealership hopes to host other events at places where it can meet more Hispanics, such as cafeterias where they work. No hard sell. Just park a few new cars and trucks outside, mingle with potential customers and give a $25 gift card to the local Home Depot store to anyone who fills out a credit application.

"We noticed a lot of people were bringing interpreters with them. We sensed that we could appeal to a lot more people if we made it easy and more comfortable to do business with us," Bennett says.

Understanding attitudes about negotiation. Some ethnic customers expect to negotiate. Others come from cultures that don't accept it.

At Wellesley Mazda outside Boston, Ukrainian immigrant Alexander Kamergorodsky, the dealer's delivery specialist, helps nurse Russian speakers through a process that can be as strange as American football. Having grown up in the old Soviet system, they often don't understand that car prices are negotiated.

After watching their eyes bulge at sticker shock, "I sit them down and say, 'Please understand. We are not trying to rob you of your money,' " he says.

At Longo, customer See says he hates to haggle about price, a practice that was shunned in his native Philippines. But Susan Tan, 37, and Gary Zhao, 44, of Arcadia, Calif., a married Chinese immigrant couple, had no qualms about wangling for a better deal. They spent an afternoon recently hammering Longo salesman Victor Zeng to reduce the $26,000 price of the Camry XLE they wanted. They saved $2,000.

Meeting special needs. Immigrants often have financial needs that go beyond cars. The dealer who helps them can build loyalty for future sales.

Two months ago, Burt Automotive Network, a dealership chain in suburban Denver, created a brokerage aimed at central-city Hispanics. Its chief marketing tool will be a debit card that Mexican settlers can use to easily send money across the border without paying fees to money wire services.

It's a long-standing problem, particularly with illegal immigrants. "None of us endorse illegal immigration," Burt Senior Vice President Hank Held says. "But those who are here are getting abused very, very badly. It's an attempt to take away some of this abuse." In the process, Held hopes they'll also save to buy a car.

Sometimes dealers have been accused of taking advantage of immigrant customers. A Southern California Toyota dealer agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges of unfair business practices in 2001. Among the allegations were that South Coast Toyota of Costa Mesa and South Bay Toyota of Gardena negotiated purchases and leases in Spanish but failed to provide a Spanish-language translation of the contract, according to the California Attorney General's office. The dealer who owned both locations did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

But these allegations are rare, especially as carmakers see the potential for developing ethnic markets.

Carmakers involved

Manufacturers are focusing on ethnic sales, too. GM encourages dealers to install signs in multiple languages. It suggests that waiting rooms be stocked with foreign-language magazines or newspapers. It points to making sales offices bigger for ethnic customers who bring their extended family when they come to negotiate a deal, says Martin Walsh, executive director of sales and marketing support.

Carmakers also help with targeted advertising. Mercedes-Benz produced a set of three print ads aimed at Asian customers. Each featured a miniature car on a pillow, a sign of security within the Asian culture. But the pattern on the pillows differed to be more appealing to each of the three target immigrant groups Chinese, Korean and Asian Indian.

In one TV commercial for the New York market, Mercedes showed passersby swooning in Spanish, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Swedish and the African language Wolof as a car whooshed through the streets.

"They already hold our brand in high esteem. It's up to us to go to the next level and reach out to the individuals," says Michelle Cervantez, Mercedes' marketing vice president.

Personal touch

Manufacturers' assistance helps, but in the end, winning over ethnic buyers comes face-to-face at the dealerships. That's where Longo has excelled.

When Greg Penske, president of the Penske Automotive Group that owns the dealership, arrived in 1987, the staff spoke five languages.

But the San Gabriel Valley, where the dealership is located, was seeing a massive wave of Asian immigration. "You just saw the culture changing," says Penske, son of former race car driver Roger Penske.

Catering to the needs of a diverse car-buying public has been key to the agency's success, Penske says. The sales force of 140 is 68% minority.

The company is going to offer Spanish and maybe Chinese language lessons as part of the training center it operates in the showroom basement.

Longo has remained the nation's highest-selling Toyota dealer for 38 years.

It has grown so big that sales workers ferry customers around the lot in golf carts. And 80% of the sales are to repeat customers.

Not that Penske and general manager Tom Rudnai haven't made a few mistakes along the line.

For instance, the agency had to hastily take down the black-and-white flags that adorned the lot of its adjoining Lexus dealership in 1989. They offended Chinese customers because black and white are the colors of death, Penske says.

But the agency has learned enough that Rudnai feels comfortable ordering new sales lot adornments: "We're going to have flags that say 'welcome' in every language."