Hybrids: Is It Time for Your to Specialize?Posted 6/15/2006
By Craig Van Batenburg, AAM
Toyota will become the largest automaker in the world by the end of this year. Why Toyota? Scott Van Batenburg, my older brother, bought a new Toyota Corona in 1966, drove it during college and after he got married. He loved that little Japanese import, and it influenced my thinking about cars. I was 15 years old then and remember it well.
Back then, Toyota was not taken seriously by the Big 3.
In 1972, Honda imported the Civic, a quirky, small front-wheel drive car that was the butt of many jokes. I remember a Honda salesman commenting on the rubber strips that hid a series of spot welds near the roof edge, saying: "This car is so small, they had to put the body side moldings on the top." Funny? Sure, but it tells us that those who mock things that are different and that they don't understand and don't take seriously can end up missing the boat.
The first hybrids were strange. Engines shutting down and starting up on their own. High tire pressures, dashboard readouts that kept you informed of your fuel economy and high voltage. Labels that reminded techs "you will die" if certain covers were removed. These "high breds" had high voltage battery packs that no one knew how long they would last, not even the OEMs.
Ignore hybrids, dismiss them, hate them or embrace them, but they are here and Toyota, soon to be the world's largest auto manufacturer, loves them.
I interviewed four shop owners from across America for this story. I believe these shop owners have vision, and they look to the future of automobiles while servicing the cars of today. These shop owners and many others specialize in hybrids and are clearly planning ahead.
Now, a word about specialization: You can specialize in a particular service, like transmissions, and still provide other services. Van Batenburg's Garage Inc. was my venture into the aftermarket. Opened in 1977, "VBG," as it was known, worked on just three makes: Honda, Toyota and Datsun. Specializing was a good business plan. It allowed VBG to have proper tools, information and training, and we were able to fix cars efficiently most of the time. Once I received management training, the profitability part was easier to achieve as I realized most customers are willing to pay more at specialty shops than general repair shops.
VBG was known as a credible and proficient shop. It was a model that worked for more than 26 years. I closed VBG to focus on my other business, ACDC, and also family. My wife, Deb, and I adopted a teenage boy from foster care, and something had to give.
The global warming concern and our dependence on imported oil are reasons most often mentioned as to why these owners bought a hybrid. What does this mean to Art's Automotive? His shop must be tuned in to customer concerns such as fuel efficiency, the war in the Middle East, renewable energy, clean air, bio-fuels, and many more auto and non-auto related issues.
Hybrids are purchased by intelligent and successful people who choose to buy them when they could afford any car they want. Making them feel accepted is important and Art knows this. Art's techs are all hybrid trained and Art owns a hybrid himself. He has a great Web site that educates and helps promote his business. His shop only works on Toyota and Honda hybrids, of which they see a lot.
The demographics of hybrid drivers are important. According to a recent survey from www.hybridcars.com: "Hybrid owners have higher income, much higher than the average car buyer - approximately $100,000 a year versus $85,000 a year - for the average buyer. They're more likely to be female, and hybrid drivers are a few years older than the average car buyer - closer to 50 rather than the average age of 40." This is a great population to invite into your shop.
And what about Van Batenburg's Garage? It is safe to say we were the first aftermarket shop in the hybrid business in North America, maybe even the world. In 2000, ACDC taught its first hybrid class. It was three hours, and I had a hard time filling the time with my hybrid knowledge. So we all drove the Insight at break time. I think we had six techs show up, three of whom worked at VBG.
It was a start. Later that year, ACDC and VBG hosted a hybrid rally, consisting of six Insights, and I held a consumer class on hybrids. VBG was on the hybrid consumer map, and overnight we were in the news. One of our young techs borrowed the Insight for prom night. Six years later, the Insight is still drawing looks (it pays to be odd) and amazes people with its fuel economy and advanced technology. Even though VBG is no longer in existence, the lessons learned can be passed on.
If you are "just" a general repair shop, ask yourself what will set you apart from the rest of the shops out there. Stats tell us that 7 percent of your customers have left you and gone back to dealerships in recent years. Dealerships are the competitor you should be the most concerned about. Don't leave your customers behind by dismissing hybrids. The number of hybrid sales are growing every year. If you plan on staying in the repair business, hybrids need to be part of your business plan.
Will you go into it deeply like Art's Automotive, add it to your business card like D.J.'s, buy a hybrid and compete in a mileage race as Slipstream did, or add it to all your shops and make a marketing plan around hybrids as Andy did with RadAir?
No matter how you plan on integrating hybrids into your techs' lives and service writers' knowledge, I am sure of one thing: There is a hybrid owner in your future who is waiting to bring you his car. Waiting just makes it harder to catch up.
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