Some Dealerships Don’t Really Want to Sell You an Electric Car

2016 Chevrolet VoltA shopper in Texas, looking for the new Chevrolet Volt, was told that there wasn’t one within 1000 miles. At a California dealership, meanwhile, there were more than 20 Volts in stock, and personnel noted that Chevy’s plug-in hybrid is their top-selling car—and that it “flies off the lot.”

Both dealership visits were around the same time, this spring, and the shoppers were taking notes on their experience as part of a broad survey about the electric-car shopping experience, organized by the environmental organization Sierra Club.

The results point out that while some dealerships do go above and beyond to sell plug-in models, many are simply deciding it’s not worth the time or effort. And they beg a reality check: If you were a Chevy dealer in Texas, would you stock Volts? Or Silverados?

Some of the conclusions of the organization’s Rev Up EVs survey and report point to greater issues facing automakers as they try to market and sell such models. Electric cars remain a tough sell to those outside a relatively narrow, self-selected group of buyers concentrated along the West Coast and in the urban Northeast—those who lock on to EVs’ green credentials and aren’t fazed by things like a limited range, a somewhat higher price, or an often low resale value. Stray outside those areas, and you’ll be much more likely to be disappointed by dealerships that don’t necessarily have plug-in vehicles in stock, don’t know where to charge them, or aren’t clued in about incentives.

In Some Places, Batteries Not Included?

The case of the elusive Chevy Volt in Texas suggests that even plug-in hybrids aren’t getting the push they merit. Such models don’t have the same range concerns as all-electric vehicles, and the latest version of the Volt can go 53 miles in pure electric mode and achieve an EPA-rated 42 mpg as a hybrid.

“We put an emphasis on making sure there’s inventory in markets where there’s the strongest demand,” said GM spokesman Fred Ligouri, who notes that about 50 percent of Volts are sold in California. “It certainly is still important to us to provide a supply in remaining parts of the market; it’s not always the case that dealers will have equal inventory, but the capability for a customer to walk in and place an order, provided [the dealership is] Volt certified, remains a priority.”

The reality is that electric vehicles—and the infrastructure that supports them—unfortunately don’t yet suit the needs, desires, or budgets of most car buyers.

— Jared Allen, NADA

The phrase “Volt certified” underscores a major point: At Chevrolet—and most other vehicle brands—dealerships aren’t required to sell or stock every product. Ligouri couldn’t say exactly what’s involved in becoming certified, although he said that, looking ahead to the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV, the automaker is engaging with its dealerships in a “readiness” program.

“We are excited by the interest in Bolt EV and anticipate that we will have a large and robust retail network to help sell those vehicles,” he said. “But, similar to products like the Corvette or the heavy-duty Silverado, there are some stores that have not or do not sell those vehicles.”

Salesperson and shopper - Getty Images/gilaxiaThe report was compiled using survey data from 174 volunteers, who visited more than 308 dealerships, with an emphasis on California and the nine states that have signed on to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) zero-emissions vehicle mandate. The Sierra Club points out that its survey was not designed to be statistically representative. To that, Jared Allen, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association, notes that it’s “neither statistically nor anecdotally representative of how franchised dealerships market EVs or—more importantly—why consumers do or do not choose to buy EVs.”

Push, Pull, or Drag

Allen points to the elephant in the room: “Franchised auto dealers are in the business of helping consumers find vehicles that best suit their needs, desires, and budgets. And the reality is that electric vehicles—and the infrastructure that supports them—unfortunately don’t yet suit the needs, desires, or budgets of most car buyers.”

The NADA has been a booster for electric vehicles—it has even put out a guide for dealerships on how to sell them—yet Allen cages it with this: “Dealers know better than anyone that, at the end of the day, the consumer is king, and until the gap closes between what consumers demand out of their vehicles (from price to range to resale value to refueling options) and what EVs can provide, sales will likely remain restrained.”

The same conflicts surely apply to many other brands, at which some dealerships and dealership groups may be dragging their feet when it comes to installing chargers and getting the necessary sales and service training to be approved to sell EVs. The Sierra Club singled out Ford and Volkswagen among the automakers that require dealers to pay expensive certification fees—noting that for Ford dealerships, those costs add up to $50,000 per store.

2016 Chevrolet Volt chargingVolkswagen declined to comment, but Ford replied that the only required direct expenses add up to about $4000, for two charging stations—and that in order for a dealership to be eligible to become EV certified, it must appoint someone the designated EV team leader, keep a demo vehicle on hand, and become certified through simple web-based training for sales and service. Ford Motor Company spokesman John Cangany added that Ford is the top seller of plug-in hybrids in the United States and that the automaker “is deeply committed to electrification, which is why we are investing $4.5 billion and adding 13 new electrified vehicles to our global product portfolio by 2020.”

Excuses, Excuses

Across town and across the country, the Sierra Club’s test shoppers heading into dealerships, hoping to find electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids, instead found a tangle of excuses. Many shoppers found the plug-in vehicles difficult to locate at the dealership. Volunteer shoppers found, at 42 percent of visits, that EVs were either “not prominently displayed” or were just “somewhat prominently displayed.” At 14 percent of dealerships, shoppers were told that the EV they wanted to test drive wasn’t sufficiently charged; Chevy and Ford dealerships were especially prone to this issue, at 22 and 21 percent, respectively. And lots of sales personnel weren’t knowledgeable about EV operating costs, rebates, and tax credits.

“While some of our Rev Up EVs survey participants found that dealerships are employing impressive best practices to sell a lot of EVs, many encountered roadblock after roadblock in their search for EV inventory, test drives, and knowledgeable salespeople,” said the Sierra Club’s Electric Vehicles Initiative director, Gina Coplon-Newfield, co-author of the report.

For the survey, “secret” shoppers were asked to rate their experiences regarding a number of details on a scale from 1 (very negative) to 5 (very positive). Brands were then given composite ratings, with combinations of positive, mediocre, or negative experiences overall, representing that range of responses. Among them, interactions with Tesla, BMW, Chevrolet, and Nissan stores were the most positive. All except Tesla and Audi registered some experiences deemed mediocre, and shoppers found Porsche and Mercedes-Benz retailers to be especially discouraging.

It’s not at all surprising that only Tesla, with 100 percent of its vehicles being electric, was given a strong rating for prominently displaying its electric vehicles and for being knowledgeable about applicable tax credits and rebates.

Tesla Store, Portland OR - Bengt Halvorson

The Golden State Is Not Always the Plug-In State

Another thing that’s not surprising is that California dealerships excel in getting vehicles with charging ports out to people who want them. So far, the other nine ZEV mandate states that have adopted the ZEV electric-vehicle requirements lag behind California; in those states—Oregon, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont—shoppers found only half as many EVs on the average new-car lot, and they were 2.5 times more likely than in California to find no EV whatsoever on the lot.

But even in the Golden State, some shoppers who set out to buy a plug-in vehicle didn’t find the experience encouraging. And a portion were dissuaded completely. As one customer reported: “I couldn’t do a test drive because the key was lost. I was encouraged to purchase a non-electric vehicle instead.”

The results skirt one of the most significant inconvenient truths: that plug-in vehicles, with their often higher prices, are a hard sell for those who don’t go to the dealership wanting one.

Automakers are keeping plug-in sales as stimulated as they need to be by lowering prices, and offering bargain leases that seem almost too good to be true (which are contributing to abysmal used-EV prices).

Dealerships Pointing to Automakers

This past year, at the NADA’s annual convention in Las Vegas, a workshop and panel discussion homed in on the importance of dealerships fostering at least a “resident EV geek” on the sales staff, and a minimum of EV knowledge for the whole staff. But ultimately the panel pointed back to consistent automaker information, education, and marketing efforts as the missing element.

With a slew of EVs and plug-in hybrids on the way over the next several years—from mainstream, niche, and luxury brands and encompassing nearly every vehicle segment—it’s clear that automakers have a vision from the boardroom. But sooner or later, they’re going to have to get serious about making the showroom and the sales lot an integral part of that vision, too.


from Car and Driver BlogCar and Driver Blog http://blog.caranddriver.com/some-dealerships-dont-really-want-to-sell-you-an-electric-car/

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