If the showroom is the centerpiece of a dealership, why not use that spot to show off decked-out vehicles?

That’s what accessory provider Kevin McGowan wonders. “Why would you want your showroom to contain a white Sonata that’s the same found at any other Hyundai dealership in town?” says the owner of Auto Trim Restyling in metro St. Louis.

Use the dealership’s premier display space to highlight accessorized vehicles to boost customer interest and profits, he says.

“A displayed car with a couple of extras on it can convert a ‘need’ guy into a ‘want’ guy,” McGowan says of some car shoppers. “When you change him from need to want, you’ll have more gross.”

McGowan and other accessory experts participate in a panel discussion entitled “Maximizing Dealership Profitability With Accessories,” put on by the Specialty Equipment Market Assn.

The title is designed to draw dealer interest, but the fact is many dealers falter when it comes to selling aftermarket products to car buyers. Reasons range from indifferent salespeople to lack of an effective sales process to dealers supposedly charging too much compared with independent competitors down the street.

Whatever the reasons, most people in the auto-retailing industry agree dealers aren’t getting a big enough share in the $36 billion a year automotive aftermarket business.

One industry observer reckons only about 10% of dealers are good at accessory sales. The panel discussion is intended to offer ways to improve.

“Get a manager for the new and used department who at least likes cars,” says panelist Ed Woods, general sales manager at Parkway Ford Lincoln in Winston-Salem, NC. “It seems a lot of them sell cars like they’re selling widgets. Passion is a big part.”

A tricked-out displayed vehicle can excite shoppers, he says. “Accessorizing gets them emotional about the purchase and it increases customer satisfaction.”

Management Commitment, Strong F&I Participation Needed

Woods recalls working at a Ford dealership that backed off from competing strictly on price and instead began regularly accessorizing vehicles.

“It was basic stuff: wheels, sunroofs, fenders,” he says. “But we had something no one else did. When the dealership was sold, it was one of the largest in the Southeast.”

Ricart Automotive Group, a collection of dealerships based in Columbus, OH, has created a job position called customer-relationship manager. One of their duties is to sell accessories, says Rick Ricart, a third-generation dealer.

“We don’t leave it in the hands of car salespeople because they’re interested in selling the car,” he says. “There wasn’t a consistency with accessory selling. You need to follow a process and ask for the sale.”

Other important elements to successful aftermarket operations include a commitment from upper management and a strong finance and insurance department, he says.

Accessories should lead to higher margins, not merely to the moving of the metal, says Josh Poulson vice president of Auto Additions. “I’m against dealers throwing accessories in just to make the sale. If customers are buying the car from you, they’re willing to buy things that go on it.”

Woods agrees. “Don’t put accessories on and then give the car away. Accessories should provide additional gross.”

Poulson says his firm’s dealership training “lets salespeople know they can make higher grosses” through aftermarket sales. But he says it’s best to limit such training to a chosen few.

“Training the entire staff is like spinning plates,” he says. “You have to keep going back to the ones you started spinning.”

Aftermarket offerings aren’t for new vehicles only, Poulson says, recommending dealerships pitch equipment such as navigation systems, seat heaters and spoilers to used-car customers.

Some dealerships depend on independent restylers to fill accessory orders, rather than assign the work to in-house service departments.

“Take a sunroof, for example,” Woods says. “Restylers have it, know how to install it, and they’re insured.”

In discussions with dealers about the benefits of offering customization, leather upholstery restyler Katzkin tries to “show dealers how they can make their cars more competitive than those of other dealers,” says Ron Leslie, the company’s vice president-sales.

Woods adds: “Accessorizing cars sets a dealership apart. Why would you not want to set yourself apart? Plus, it makes more money for you, it’s fun to do and it creates a customer who’s proud he bought a car from you.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com