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This year’s NADA convention didn’t hold the drama of some recent years, thank goodness, but did provide a glimpse of the future.

I run into Andy Koblenz at the annual National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in Orlando. He’s a NADA executive vice president. “What themes are you picking up this year?” he asks.

Good question, and a tough one, because nothing highly dramatic is happening to dealers these days. At least not like in past years. Four years ago was a doozey. That’s when the recession and the financial-market crisis formed a tag team to body-slam the auto industry and everyone else in the ring. Dealers felt the pain.

The unofficial theme of the 2009 NADA convention was “Survival.” This year’s theme? It’s hard to say. The economy is slowly improving. Auto sales are climbing, but far from the soaring 17 million-unit heights of a decade ago. Dealers are doing OK, the ones that survived the troubled times, anyway. They’ve stowed their life preservers until further notice.

“I’m not seeing any real themes,” I tell Koblenz. Themes come to mind more readily during disasters.

“How about ‘Momentum’?” he says helpfully or hopefully, pointing to a wall banner with that word in big letters. Oh, that’s right: “Momentum” is the official theme of the convention. That works, in a prefab sort of way.

Later, I chat with Cars.com CEO Mitch Golub, and ask what he makes of the convention this time around. “It’s one of the most interesting ones I’ve attended because there is no central theme,” he says. Right you are, Mitch.

“I’ve been asking every dealer who comes to our booth, ‘What is your focus? What’s your agenda? What are you doing here?’” he says.

The general response is dealers know they must take advantage of better times to bulk up for tough times, Golub says. “So they are really focusing on the guts of their business. I thought ‘big data’ might be a convention theme. I’m hearing a little about data, but it is all over the board.”

He adds, “It’s pretty much all about sales and service. At NADA last year, you saw social media booth after social media booth. This year, there is not a lot about social media.

Dealers understand social media primarily is about reputation management and “the review side of the business, which means serving customers the right way,” he says. “But there’s less frenzy about Facebook and building fan clubs.”

This year’s convention was like previous ones in that it had a certain level of dealer griping about auto maker interference. But NADA has gotten smarter by not just beefing, but also documenting grievances.

For instance, the trade group commissioned a study on whether dealership facility upgrades done at the insistence of auto makers show returns on investment.

The study concludes some construction projects do offer an ROI, and some don’t, particularly ones requiring all of a brand’s stores to look alike.

“We can’t find where the nationalization of a brand look pays off,” says Glenn Mercer, who led the study.

He also delves into how future dealerships will operate. “Our conclusion is that the dealership system will fundamentally remain intact in 2025,” but stores will run more efficiently and even collectively.

Mercer foresees dealers moving support functions off site and possibly sharing service facilities. He also predicts consumers will continue to avidly use the Internet to car shop, but to a limit. “I’ve yet to see someone completely buy a car online,” he says.

We shall see about that.

In the vast exhibit hall, more than 500 exhibitors show their stuff, much of it the latest online software and website content enhancements to aid auto buying and selling.

On the other hand, some exhibitors are decidedly low-tech. I notice one in particular. It sells cookies to dealers to give to their customers as tokens of appreciation.

The cookie-supplier’s booth catches my eye because it’s getting a lot of traffic. Then I realize why. It’s giving out free samples. Some things never change.

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

Contributors

Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine. His journalism career started 40 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes fast cars, big lakes and cold days.

Jim Ziegler

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