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Marketing Research Goes High-Tech and Backwoods

March 11, 1995|JEFF BARNARD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BANDON, Ore. — From the piney woods of the southern Oregon coast, 26 miles from the nearest McDonald's and 146 miles from an interstate, Art Spinella tracks the auto market.

His company, CNW Marketing-Research Inc., follows the money trail of consumer spending with long-distance telephone surveys, computer data links and video conferences broadcast via satellite.

Only 10 years ago, Spinella couldn't have presumed to offer this kind of advice from a house tucked into the pine trees and huckleberries at the end of a gravel driveway. He would have had to be in Detroit, the hub of the auto industry, or at least Los Angeles.

"People no longer worry that you are from Oregon and doing market research," said Spinella, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native. "Because, we're not. This office is here. It's a bunch of 2-by-4s and wood planks and a whole bunch of digitized ones and zeros. It's all computers."

Out in the woods, he came up with a way to track the elusive and lucrative automobile leasing market through insurance companies. Car companies wouldn't part with their individual numbers. Car registrations were no good, because they list the owner of the car, which is the leasing company. But insurance companies know who is driving the car.

That's important information for the people who sell cars. CNW reports that leasing has grown from 11.6% of new-car deliveries to more than 30% in the past 10 years.

The idea came to Spinella while sipping coffee on the sidewalk in this coastal town of 2,200 at a weekly pre-dawn gathering of local business people.

CNW's measurements of consumer confidence and car transactions are used by automobile makers from Detroit to London to Tokyo as well as the Federal Reserve Board.

"Where Art probably helped us was getting us launched into the retail leasing environment, which is a very high-growth segment of automobile financing," said Larry Raney, retail leasing manager for the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors.

The information is based on weekly telephone surveys conducted from centers in New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as mailed surveys.

The answers go into a database shared by the five different arms of CNW, located where each of the people heading them wants to live. One tracks high-end home electronics and home computers from Chicago. Another follows personal loan investments from New Jersey. Single-family housing studies come from Los Angeles, politics from Kansas City and cars in Bandon.

The initials CNW stand for Coastal Northwest, a magazine created by Spinella and his wife, Stephanie Yanez Spinella, which lasted just one test issue. A former managing editor of the Kelly Blue Book--a listing of fair market values for cars--she is president of CNW.

Her husband's background includes public relations for DeLorean and editing for various automotive publications.

They work out of their home, which has two satellite dishes on the roof and a baseball batting cage in the back yard for their three sons.

Spinella's office is a converted cottage he calls the Bat Cave, which is stocked with phone, fax, a couple of high-performance personal computers and a coffeepot.

His own life could be a warning for the automobile industry. What will it mean when more people work at home on computers and no longer put 20,000 miles a year on their cars commuting?

"A good part of it is analyzing the data and realizing there is a whole lot more to the world than a car," said Spinella of his job.

"Car company people are very myopic. They love to look at just cars. They say, 'Well, if a car costs $239 a month, 85% of the American people can afford that.' And you go, 'No, wait a minute, $239 a month is not something everybody can afford.' Out of 250 million people, only 42 million people in this country are capable or willing to buy a car at any point in time. That's all there is."

Moreover, "cars aren't any longer the end-all, be-all when it comes to status or what people want to do with their money," he said.

"You can get high-end home electronics. You can get computers. You can get all kinds of other stuff."

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