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Don’t Believe the Hype

June 2007, F&I and Showroom - Feature

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

Predictions for new-vehicle sales are already dropping, and some dealers say the tax-return buying spree — which has been coming in earlier and earlier every year — just hasn’t manifested itself. However, industry insiders are warning dealers not to believe the doom-and-gloom picture many are trying to paint. Some are saying consumers are waiting for new models expected out later this year. Others are saying consumers are waiting for manufacturer incentives to kick in.

So what is going on? Is there something on the horizon that we should all be preparing for? Has the “let’s live for today” approach many consumers adopted in recent years finally caught up to us?

Scanning the Internet to find out what’s being said out there, I came across this blog that paraphrased several April news items. At the bottom, the blogger posted a section with the heading: “U.S. Outlook is Poor.” Under it were four bullet points that showed how the economy is drastically slowing (GDP came in at 1.3 percent, with the housing market taking a 1-percent chunk out of that), how auto sales were falling, and banged on Ford’s “aging” lineup, GM’s union problems and its appeal to subprime borrowers (my question here is: Why wouldn’t they?). It also mentioned how mortgage equity withdrawal is falling with house prices.

I was surprised gas prices didn’t make it into that blog after they hit record highs in several regions of the country. All I know is I dropped $43 and some change the other day (May 3) for my 1997 Honda Accord.

So, is it time to get all “chicken little” on you? No, not yet.

Economists are calling what’s going on right now a mini version of the stagflation of the late ’70s and ’80s.

Stagflation refers to slow growth and inflation that’s too high for the Federal Reserve’s comfort. The reason why it’s different this time around is because consumer inflation is running under 3 percent over the last 12 months (rate hit double-digits in the ’70s), and because energy prices have been fueled by demand rather than the supply problems of the ’70s. Global competition has also prevented price increases.

OK, so what’s this all mean for F&I? I’m glad you asked, as I’m going to go against best practices for the rest of this editorial (sorry Coach — he hates when I do this) and tease you with some tidbits about what you’ll see in the following pages.

The good news is that automotive finance is going strong, as Jim Bass will tell you on page 24. He addresses the whole subprime mortgage debacle and what that means for automotive finance.

In short, yes, delinquencies have edged up a bit and extended terms are beginning to stretch out. And yes, many have said this situation, if it continues, could be the industry’s “Pandora’s Box,” as one insider put it (take a look at page 20).But overall, as Experian told me, automotive finance is pretty darn healthy.

If you still don’t believe me, we follow all of that up with a one-on-one interview with Marc Sheinbaum, the new CEO of Chase Auto Finance. The company is on the move, and Sheinbaum will definitely make you feel a little bit better about what’s going on out there. He addresses the concerns I mentioned earlier, and also talks about how the home mortgage market is affecting the company’s lending criteria. Don’t worry, there’s good news.

However, the one thing I am hearing these days is that the amount of research a consumer can do before purchasing a vehicle is kind of backfiring on some dealers. Basically, the scenario playing out is that consumers want more for less. Nothing new, I know, but the difference is: If that dealer won’t get the deal done, the consumer knows he or she can go elsewhere.

Every month we beat that dead horse about the importance of backing that nonprime customer into the right vehicle, and we do it again this month with Tim Shea’s article on page 50. So check it out.

According to Asbury Automotive’s Charlie Robinson, who was cautiously basking in the company’s successful quarterly report card, it’s all about focus. He said the company has put a lot of emphasis on the used-car market. Finance, he said, was another important cog in the company’s success in the first quarter. And as Robinson and others have said, finding income for the dealership means revisiting your F&I product mix. Pre-paid maintenance, from what I hear, is a big deal these days. In fact, any F&I products that can send customers to the service drive is definitely what’s needed.

And with products being such a hot topic, we thought we’d bring back Ron Martin this month to talk about the “ideal menu.” I know it’s hard to believe that such a thing exists, but Martin weighs in with his recommendations and his reasons for having them. But if you think you have the perfect menu, we’re all ears. Just send me an e-mail at gregory.arroyo@bobit.com.

I’d like to end this editorial with a quote I pulled from one of our F&I Forum members: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t ... you’re right.” Enough said.

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