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Car Shows Are More Popular Than Ever: You Can't Kick Tires Online

November 08, 2000|LYNN O'DELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a marketing tool, the auto show is an old one. Almost as soon as there were cars, there were auto shows to help move those wheels.

Nowadays, to judge by the growing number of online automobile e-tailers, it might seem time to write off the car show as an idea whose time has passed.

But the auto show, aimed at helping dealers generate showroom-filling consumer excitement, is far from becoming an anachronism, even in an e-world. In fact, the nearly century-old combination of polish and patter, glitz and glamour, is more popular than ever.

Auto show attendance is up nationwide, and the Internet--once feared by conventional auto retailers--may be part of the reason.

Studies show that 54% of all new-vehicle shoppers use the Internet for research before visiting a dealer these days and that the number of vehicles sold through online buying services has risen nearly 75%. But more than 95% of all sales of new cars and trucks are still consummated at a local auto dealership.

Nothing beats a chance to kick the tires, it seems.

"Auto shows go hand in hand with the Internet," said Bryan Lilley, vice president of Liberty Productions, which manages the 2001-Model California International Auto Show, running today through Sunday at the Anaheim Convention Center.

He describes an auto show as "a neutral location."

"You can go there and see everything you can see on the Internet--live--and there's no sales guy chasing you around saying, 'You can take that car home with you,' " Lilley said.

This year's O.C. show is presented by the Orange County Automobile Dealers Assn. and the Southland Motor Car Dealers Assn. The Los Angeles Times is the show's sponsor.

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After their homes, a new vehicle is the second-largest purchase most consumers ever make, and at an average cost of more than $22,000, "it's hard to buy a car without seeing it," Lilley said.

Jim Graham, owner of Santa Margarita Ford in Rancho Santa Margarita, agrees.

"The Internet may change a lot of ways of doing business. But it can't replace the feeling you get walking into a show, seeing all the cars at once. Smelling them. Touching them," said Graham, who has attended auto shows for more than 20 years and still finds them fascinating.

He concedes that the potential buyer--and most auto show attendees say they are in the market--could go home and order their car or truck on the Internet. Indeed, a recent J.D. Power & Associates study found that 4.7% of all new vehicles have been sold through an online buying service this year--up from 2.7% in 1999.

So what do dealers and manufacturers get out of shows such as the Orange County event--shows than easily can cost $1 million to stage?

In a word: business.

Historically, auto dealers see a 10% to 15% increase in showroom traffic for 30 days after such an event, said Graham, whose dealership is among those presenting the show. The show tends to jump-start the interest level of buyers who were "sort of in the market but waiting for the lightning bolt to strike," he said.

Nationally, 1999 was a banner year for new-vehicle sales, with a record 16.9 million units sold. And, despite a slight sales downturn this fall, 2000 is likely to be another record setter, according to projections by the National Automobile Dealers Assn. and industry analysts, some of whom see an 18-million-unit total by year-end.

Dealers in Orange County, the fourth-largest auto sales market in the nation, use new-vehicle registration as a yardstick. By that measure, sales could crack the 200,000 mark this year, said Kevin Allen, executive director of the Orange County Automobile Dealers Assn., which puts on the Anaheim show with the Long Beach-based Southland Motor Car Dealers Assn.

The show could help.

"Just hearing 'auto show, auto show, auto show'--just the amount of advertising we do--gets people thinking automotive whether they attend the show or not," Lilley of Liberty Productions said.

Manufacturers use the shows to display new models and generate sales. They also use them to gauge the buzz on potential new models. Both Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer Sport Trac and Volkswagen's New Beetle were concept vehicles that got such enthusiastic receptions at auto shows that manufacturers decided to put them into production.

Auto makers spend tens of millions of dollars on such shows. Most hit a circuit of about 70 shows in the U.S. that includes major ones such as the upcoming Greater Los Angeles Auto Show (Jan. 6 to 14), and shows in Chicago, New York and, of course, Detroit.

Manufacturers ship out vehicles and elaborate displays and dispatch product specialists--energetic young women and men--who wear business suits and microphones and offer up a steady stream of patter about the vehicles they are trained to promote.

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