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Wednesday, February 13, 2008 

Vol. 4 No. 2

The More Things Change…The More They Become Different…
Women, Cars, NADA 2008 Annual Convention, and CarsDiva.com

I’ve been in the car business a very long time by most standards, over 22 years now. As always though, at the National Automobile Dealers Association 2008 Convention, there are dealers and other attendees who make me look like an absolute rookie. , The 91st annual NADA Convention, as in previous years, still overwhelms me with the sheer size and scale of the event.. Anybody who is anybody in the retail end of the car business attends, and no matter how high up on the ladder, seems accessible for at least these few days a year – this is the only convention I recall where all the top guys of the industry make a point of being available at their booths on the convention floor (and at meetings, and parties, etc.), to meet and greet all of the attendees that they can for the time available.

The Times, They Are A Changing…

So in my almost quarter decade of the business, sometimes the NADA conventions reflect a certain theme, something in the industry that represents change, that overtakes many other topics. I remember the “Asian invasion” (two of them), the issue of dealerships being public entities (that’s only a little over 15 years old, by the way, for an industry that’s been around 100 years, that would be a little surprising to most folks), the “factory dealer” controversy and the “Blue Oval” experience. I’ve lived through the “.com,” “direct-to-consumer” and march of the “silicon yuppie” late the last decade, and the “program car” era of the domestic manufacturers first buying, then selling all of the daily rental car companies.

Through all this, the resiliency of the automotive dealer system, and the admirable and effective tenacity of dealers, always seems to prevail, and indeed, no matter what situation unfolds, dealers always adapt to create benefit out of chaos, advancement out of change. This year the “economy,” “green” and “emission standards” are of the highest priority, and Chinese vehicles are a hot topic. One additional event, of the highest impact was the official inauguration of the new incoming NADA Chairman, Annette Sykora. While this would seem unremarkable in most industries, this is the first time in its history that NADA has been chaired by a woman, and it’s pushing a hundred years old.

The fact is women directly buy the majority of new and used vehicles, they directly spend the majority of vehicle service dollars, yet as I walk the halls of NADA, the ratio of men to women in the retailing end of the business is still probably close to 90% men to 10% women. But this represents a positive change, as when I started in the business is it was, indeed, more like 99% to 1%.

Where I Think the Web Plays a Role

There are many reasons for the recognition and growth of the empowerment of women in the business, but one overwhelming catalyst in particular has been a level of transparency and openness that was initiated by the Internet over the last ten years or so. When I started in the business, it was common practice for a dealer to not let his salespeople know the true invoice of a vehicle, dealer customer satisfaction numbers were a closely guarded secret, and poor treatment of women and consumers in general, was notoriously commonplace in some of the more financially successful stores. With no light shining on these facts, there was very little there to motivate a change of these old practices.

About ten years ago now, the World Wide Web came along, and added a level of transparency that changed everything. Now vehicle invoices (and current consumer and factory rebates) are available to anyone who can connect up (even though for many years after this freely available information was posted, many dealers still refused to reveal individual vehicle invoice prices to salespeople…go figure). Bad “word of mouth,” and now dealer rating systems, are easily “vetted” on the Web for all to see instantaneously. And voila, the focus and treatment of women consumers that make up the vast majority of the retail automotive buying market, have improved dramatically and NADA has a woman Chairman. I don’t think any of this is coincidence or happening in a vacuum, but instead is finally ushering in a new age, where both the best and worst retailers are exposed very quickly with the visibility of virtual communities on the Web. This is taken now one step further with the advent of “social networks” that is, the formation of information exchanging virtual communities, specifically created to make available personal referral type information informally among online local and national friends.

So get the convergence here… Online communities are the most rapidly expanding Web communication medium for both individuals and marketers, and are the focus of conventional media. Cars and automotive topics have always been one of the staple topics of offline communities, when people socialize and congregate. Word of mouth referral is important to every consumer, and is the most trusted and credible method by which to pick any retailer or item (as opposed to advertising or marketing, in any form). Women buy and service the majority of motor vehicles in the US, and are, as a group, the most dissatisfied and disenfranchised with the car buying and servicing process, and are grossly underrepresented on a professional basis within the retailing end of this industry. (These two facts have something to do with each other, no doubt).

So put together all of the facts of the above, and the conclusion that a social/professional automotive online community focused on women and automotive topics would satisfy an unmet need and help to bridge the information gap for women (and all) consumers on how the business works, allowing for the type of industry retailing transparency that leads to greater purchase and servicing satisfaction. To be most effective, it would need a personal spokesperson, a woman in the business to act as a catalyst and bridge between consumers and the industry, to reach out to male and female industry personalities to explain their various functions and specialties, in a personal communication dialogue. It’s a sort of virtual town hall where the many knowledgeable customer focused individuals in the business (many at NADA right now,) are visible and can be a consumer resource for the advancement of all….

That’s the CarsDiva & CarsDiva.com

I’m proud to have announced at this year’s NADA Convention our first automotive related online community (and the only one focused on retail consumers, the rest will be industry trade networks), CarsDiva.com, the online network “By, For & About Women and the Car Business.” I’m even prouder, by the way, to introduce the CarsDiva herself, Demetra Markopoulos, who is the best new industry insider catalyst I know to be the “Martha Stewart” meets “MotorTrend” meets “MySpace” social and professional network host. It’s no exaggeration to say that among issues of the economy, green and Chinese vehicles that 2008 marks the year of the true emergence of the recognition of women as the major consumer sector that fuels the car business at NADA. I congratulate Annette Sykora for her accomplishments and in playing a large part in moving the needle forward in this regard, and hope that CarsDiva.com can push things forward as well, to the benefit of all consumers and retailers in this industry (the one I’ve always liked the most).

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