With my head pounding from all the talk about layoffs, shutdowns, stalled sales, and ousted executives, I’ve got a new theory on the way out of this automotive crisis: Hand it over to the people. No, I don’t mean put Joe Consumer in charge of the Auto Task Force or appoint Jane Car-Shopper head of a domestic automaker. What we have to do is get people into dealership showrooms, ready to buy cars.
Duh, that’s obvious, Marcie. If it’s so simple, why hasn’t it worked so far? What we need is a more aggressive, concerted effort on the part of manufacturers, dealers, and lenders to show consumers that vehicle purchases are feasible and not so daunting.
Some automakers have started. Hyundai launched its Assurance plan that guarantees payment help should an auto-loan borrower lose his job. GM and Ford have similar programs, as well. Some banks, meanwhile, have programs that enable borrowers struggling with payment problems to pay only a percentage of their monthly payment — say 5% of a $300 payment.
Dealers and lenders need to get the message across that there are less expensive used cars — good, quality cars — available, with perfectly attainable financing options. Consumers need to know what is expected of them. Sure, the lending environment has changed, but there are still plenty of financiers out there making loans to credit tiers across the spectrum. As long as the credit equation remains hazy, though, consumers will shy away.
Enlist the nation’s brightest marketing gurus. Start an ad campaign. Start touting the benefits of vehicle sales and financing.
There’s certainly pent-up demand. Vehicle sales have been logging about a nine-million-unit pace this year, a far cry from a more normalized 14-million-unit rate. So people need cars. They’re just afraid to buy them.
We need to crack the code. Keep coming up with ideas to penetrate the consumer DNA. If one thing doesn’t work, get back up and try something else. Once we get that initial trickle, we can turn it into a steady stream of car-buying consumers.