Retail Front

Dealers Blamed for Dismal EV Market


A senior analyst from the Natural Resources Defense Council says at a University of Michigan conference that consumers shopping electric vehicles frequently are just plain turned off by the dealership experience.

Luke Tonachel thinks he knows why battery-electric vehicles aren’t more popular: because dealership personnel aren’t well trained or motivated to sell them.

The senior analyst from the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council spoke at a fuel-economy conference hosted last week by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and says consumers frequently are just plain turned off by the dealership experience.

Tonachel cites ongoing research at the University of California-Davis that finds 83% of consumers are dissatisfied with the process of buying an EV. That compares with a 25% dissatisfaction rate for shoppers of conventional vehicles, he says.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to get dealers focused on understanding the benefits (of EVs) and how to portray those to consumers,” Tonachel says.

The biggest problem identified in the U-C Davis study is lack of information among sales personnel. “There weren’t people on staff who understand the technology or how to explain it,” he says. “Consumers coming in had more knowledge than the people they were buying the vehicles from.”

Likewise, Consumer Reports magazine sent people to shop for EVs at dealerships across the country “and found the experience for consumers was very uneven,” he says. “In some cases, the consumers were being told, ‘Don’t even look at that vehicle, it’s not going to make sense.’”

Of course, some shoppers were given good advice.

“But the broad sense of it was, they were getting steered away from electrification even if it made sense for a consumer,” Tonachel says. “Sales people wanted to sell something else and would say, ‘Maybe you should look over here.’ In many cases, dealerships didn’t even have the (electric) vehicles on the lot to show.”

It’s exactly this problem that has led Tesla to assert its own model for selling and distributing its electric vehicles. State dealer associations across the country are fighting Tesla, citing franchise laws and insisting the California automaker must play by the same rules as every other OEM.

If Tesla were convinced the existing dealer infrastructure was truly motivated and capable of selling its cars, then this dust-up and threats of litigation never would have occurred.

Personnel who already are good at selling electric vehicles, according to the U-C Davis study, are those who drive electric vehicles and have immersed themselves in the technology and overall market.

“There are people coming in to dealerships who are very enthusiastic, but yet they are being turned off by someone who doesn’t really know the technology,” Tonachel says.

For the record, automakers have sold 25,518 electric vehicles in the U.S. through June, a scant 0.3% of the light-vehicle market, according to WardsAuto data. 

UMTRI’s Bruce Belzowski, who hosted the fuel-economy conference, urges dealers to make it a priority to have EVs available on the lot for test drives.

“If you don’t have multiples of those types of vehicles on the lot, it becomes a tougher choice for the consumer,” he says, noting a similar shortage of new diesel vehicles.

“If you’re trying to increase the number of these types of vehicles, you have to have them so people can see them.”

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

on Jul 28, 2014

I visited a local Nissan dealer to test drive a Leaf. The car was buried on the lot and it took 20 minutes to gain access. It wouldn't start. After about 45 minutes the salesperson admitted the battery was dead and said I needed to come back later in the week after it was charged.
I asked, "How many of these have you sold?"
"Not many," he replied.
I responded, "I'm not surprised."

on Jul 28, 2014

Yea, that's the kind of story that should have every EV maker cringing. It take more than just customer demand to sell a vehicle, particularly an electric.

on Aug 5, 2014

The comment about the number of EVs sold in the U.S. "through June" is very misleading. The sentence implies that this is the total number of EVs sold, and not just the monthly total that it is.

on Aug 11, 2014

There is some truth here, although I only see things from this Nissan dealership perspective. In the early years, Nissan was very concerned that LEAF buyers get accurate information, and they were particulary careful about any chance someone would purchase a LEAF and have a driving habit in excess of the vehicles technologies. They designated specific individuals to sell the LEAF, and instituted an investigative track to evaluate a potential buyers driving habit against the vehicles capacities. That was a smart move to try and make sure the "new" technology would be in places where it would work. There are two issues I have seen pop-up again and again, however. Someone comes in looking for a LEAF and speaks to a sales consultant who would have to turn-over the prospect. That doesn't work well, kinda goes against the grain , and there's a natural motivation to steer that prospect to a different vehicle...which leads to the second issure. With a large number of Auto sales, it is the strength of a sales consultants personality that seals the deal, rather than any strong knowledge of specifc products or systems. With EV's there is a little bit more of a learning curve and some consultants just don't go there. IF someone goes into a dealership and asks for the EV Sales Leader, or Specialist, they stand a much better chance of speaking to someone versed in electric vehicles, but who is going to know to walk into a dealership and ask that question? If you just go into a dealership looking for a new vehicle, chances are still much greater that the electric option simply won't come up, even if you fit the bill.

on Aug 12, 2014

Taking into consideration this article is mostly from the view of the "Senior Analyst" at the " Natural Resources Defense Council ", I don't put much weight into blaming the dealers. If Electric vehicles made sense(which they don't at this time) to the public, they would be selling. Blaming the dealer is like blaming a customer at a restraunt for not buying more food he doen't like.

on Aug 13, 2014

I totally agree with you. Except for some very special markets, they are not practical for most consumers. And for that are practical, a golf cart will usually be acceptable. Too many "false starts" and overly anxious pushing of these has left many consumers "cold". I am reminded of when a salesman was trying to convince my father that a small 8N Ford Tractor was just what was needed for our 1100 acre farm, he replied simply, "One to work with the 6 big tractors is handy, but I couldn't make a crop with a thousand of the d_ _ _ things. Maybe one EV for a family with several alternatives in the driveway of a suburban home would be a "handy" addition, but not as the primary vehicle.

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Blogs about automotive retailing, commenting on news impacting the business of selling vehicles.


Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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