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Being the Consumer

August 30, 2010

There were seven consumer insights that ended up on the cutting room floor after my editorial team hacked away at last month’s Carfax story. I thought I’d kick off this month’s editorial with these points, which came courtesy of Kelley Blue Book’s James Bell.

■ Vehicle-buying intentions have stretched out from four years to six or seven.

■ Shoppers first zero in on a vehicle before visiting third-party Websites for ownership costs and reviews.

■ The average consumer will research three to four vehicles before he or she even looks for a dealership.

■ Internet-savvy buyers now know the difference between a “SE” and an “EX” trim package.

■ The fear of gas prices rising means dealers need to keep a couple of fuel-efficient vehicles on their lots.

■ With the American car-buying psyche — “I want the grandest vehicle for my buying dollar” — still alive and well, SUVs are still great lot fillers.

■ The average buyer wants a fair price, not the lowest price.

I want to focus on this last item, because sometimes I think we fail to humanize insights like that in our race to get ahead of today’s Internet-savvy consumer.

Take my situation. Nine months ago I found out I’d become a father this month. A lot of questions have been running around in my head since. How should I prepare? Is my place ready for a baby? Am I ready? Most importantly, was it time for a bigger vehicle?

Now, my wife and I are professionals in the magazine business, an industry that has seen better days. My company has weathered the storm quite well, but I can’t say the same for my wife. Her former employer laid her off in May — about five months in to her pregnancy. Yeah, our world was shaken to the core. Luckily, I have a great wife and we make a great team.

Now, it wasn’t like we didn’t know her layoff was coming. Her office, which was family owned before it was swallowed up by one of those big corporations, had gone from 25 people to three in a matter of two years. Unfortunately, the recession and industry consolidation pretty much obliterated any chance of her finding a new gig.

The good news is my wife and I spent the first three years of our five-year marriage going through those new-couple growing pains, where money seems to be at the center of every disagreement. We purchased our home in the same month we got married — a move any financial expert would warn against. Worst of all, we committed this financial sin during the housing boom. We did buy our place for a lot less than the market commanded, but no amount of negotiations could offset the plunge in home values.

The rise in gas prices in 2007 also put us back a bit. Our saving grace turned out to be our frugality, which knows no bounds. I don’t have cable, which means I don’t have one of those flatscreen TVs. And let’s just say our living room furniture was probably best suited for a fraternity house.

Living like college students worked just fine for those first three years, but we knew we’d eventually have to step up to some adult furniture. But without a true deadline for that upgrade, I always found a reason to put it off — that is, until my wife uttered those two words, “I’m pregnant.”

So, like any good editor with a deadline, I knew what I had to do and how much time I had to do it. I pulled out some money from our “Oh, crap!” fund and made some upgrades — new couch, new cabinets, new shower, new curtains and a roomful of new baby furniture.

Now, it became pretty clear early on that my little Honda Accord — God bless its four cylinder engine — wasn’t cutting it. That small SUV I’d been eyeing for the last five years was starting to seem like a good buy. My wife and I pay our bills on time; we both have credit scores in the upper 700s and do have some funds available for a down payment. But with a baby on the way and my wife still unemployed, that small SUV was really a want, not a need.

And that’s the problem with today’s customer. It’s not that the consumer wants to screw you out of profits; it’s that every dollar counts. Think about this stat: more than 43 million Americans now have a FICO score of 599 or less. That’s more than one-quarter of all U.S. consumers.

Auto retail experts will continue to hammer home that old adage, “Be easy to do business with,” and they will be right. Consumers are looking for every reason not to buy, so don’t be one of those reasons.

Comments

  1. 1. Jim Radogna [ August 31, 2010 @ 06:13PM ]

    Well said papa (and congrats!)

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