Bob Bower
Bob Bower
Carriage Car Co.
Owner

As Carriage Car Co.’s Bob Bower tells it, the story of how he started selling cars begins with a bit of intrigue and an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“They just called me out of the clear blue,” he said of Derrald Rollyson Volkswagen in Beckley, W.Va., where he’d bought a Beetle a few years prior in 1969. “They had built a new facility on the other side of town and asked me to come and speak with them. I didn’t have a clue what they wanted.”

Bower soon learned he was being recruited “to sell Volkswagen Beetles and used cars.” On top of the $25 commission for each Beetle he sold – more for used cars – the dealership offered him a new company car every six weeks along with free gas and washes. “That was one of the deciding factors,” he said. What was another? “I was working for the power company, reading meters. I really hated reading meters in the winter and the dogs and the irate customers.”

In the years that followed, Bower worked for several franchise stores in his hometown of Beckley and moved up the ranks. At his last dealership, he was the general manager.

“That kind of opened the door for me to own my own business,” he said.

Bower launched Carriage Car Co. in June 1993, specializing, in “newer, nicer, low-mileage cars. Just about everything was under warranty. No one else in town was selling nice low-mileage cars, other than the new-car stores.” Today, he focuses on highline makes such as BMW, Jaguar, Lexus, Mercedes and Volvo.

DealerADvantage recently spoke with Bower to learn more about his online initiatives and how those strategies drive sales. He said he sells upward of 15 cars each month, attributing one-fourth of the deals to his internet advertising.

DealerADvantage: I understand you were reluctant to use the internet with your dealership until several months ago. How did you get started?

Bower: I was telling my son about (signing on with Cars.com), and he’s kind of a computer guru. He said, “I’ve got a new laptop; it’s just fabulous. If you’d like to have my old computer, I’ll bring it up and get you started.” We have a computer at home, but I’m not really computer savvy. I’ve also got a good friend that just graduated from West Virginia University, and he’s fabulous on the computer. He got me wired up with Cars.com and printed out everything I needed. I had a digital camera, and he showed me how to upload the pictures. It was kind of tough at first, but it didn’t take long. I kind of enjoy doing it now. It was interesting, especially after I saw the results of what I was getting – the calls and the sales – especially in a really slow economy. It’s been my salvation.

DealerADvantage: Do you track your results?

Bower: Yeah, and it keeps tabs for me. There are so many neat little things about Cars.com that you can pull up. These reports will show you, in my area, not just who’s calling me but what everybody is looking for. In the summertime, Mustangs are hotter than a $3 pistol here in Beckley. I’ve had several Mustangs this summer and sold every one of them – and done real well with them because that’s what people were looking for. You can find this on Cars.com. What kind of trucks are people looking for? It’s really a shot in the arm with the economy the way it is.

DealerADvantage: You said that you write sell copy for each of your vehicles. How many pictures are you including?

Bower: I usually try to have eight to 10, just depending on the car. I know people like to look at them. The trunk and under the hood, I’ve kind of got away from unless they’re just outstanding. I had a Viper here a week or so ago, and it had that gorgeous V-10 engine.

DealerADvantage: How many cars do you keep in inventory?

Bower: I normally keep around 18 to 22 cars, somewhere in that ballpark. I also do some consignment work for people that aren’t upside down and buried in their cars. I’ve done quite well with it. It’s worked out really nice.

DealerADvantage: What’s your process when shoppers contact you by phone or email? How do you start working the sale?

Bower: I just try to be honest and straightforward with them, tell them everything I know about the car they’re looking at. I tend to get more phone business, which is fine, and I call everyone that emails me. I try to get hold of everyone. I figure that it they take the time to look at my cars online, there’s a reason they’re doing this. They need a car.

DealerADvantage: Is the internet helping you reach local shoppers or long-distance buyers? We often hear from independent dealers who sell across the country once they put their listings on the internet.

Bower: Both. Mostly I’ll get calls from areas away from me, but I’ve had local people, right here in Beckley, come and find a particular car that they just don’t get up on their side of town. Harper Road, where my store is located, is extremely busy, and a lot of people avoid it because it’s so congested, especially in rush hour.

DealerADvantage: Does it surprise you how far away you’re selling cars?

Bower: Yeah. It’s amazing. One time, I had a 2001 Honda CR-V with 160-some thousand miles on it. The car looked like it had 6,000 miles on it, the way the owner took care of it. I took some pictures, came into my office and got on Cars.com. I told everything about the car, even the miles. Before I got the pictures uploaded, the phone started ringing. A dealer from Florida called, and he agreed to overnight me a deposit. I also had a call from Maryland that same Saturday and a call from Atlanta. That was probably the fastest I ever sold a car on Cars.com. I was uploading the pictures, and the phone was ringing – so that was pretty slick.

DealerADvantage: You’ve said that you try to keep your pricing below NADA retail. Does this approach help you hold gross?

Bower: Yes, and the automobile sells itself. My customers realize what a nice car they’re getting for the money. I’m not criticizing other dealers, but it’s the best thing for me when they’ve got their cars so overpriced that I’ve had people – and this is no joke – come in and buy my vehicles and never ask for a dime off. They’ve seen a similar vehicle down the street at another store, where it was so overpriced that they think mine is such a deal. I could have gone another $1,000 or $1,500 off, but they never asked.

DealerADvantage: How did you learn to work with shoppers to earn their trust and win their business?

Bower: I just kind of watched my mentors when I first started. The general sales manager at the Volkswagen dealership was just a real personable fellow. I remember one time a customer that was really negative against me. You could tell he thought I was just a scum-of-the-earth car salesman. I was trying to be nice to him and really struggling with him, trying to get a commitment. He loved the car, but I just couldn’t get him to sign on the dotted line. I went to get old Fred who, within a matter of minutes, got on ground zero with that guy. He knew a neighbor or a relative or a friend, and they would communicate – just all of a sudden, the guy freed up and turn into a nice fellow. Within a matter of minutes – this is no joke – Fred came out of my office and said, “Go in there and write that deal up.” I used Fred a lot, and I really learned from him and the used car manager, Tommy. He was just really down to earth and just honest as the day is long. Fred has since passed away, but he turned out to be one of my very best friends. Not only did he get me in the business, but I learned a tremendous amount of respect for the customers and the way they like to be treated.

Fred didn’t take life seriously. There was always clowning around and joking with people, and I kind of do that now. Matter of fact, I keep a drawer right here full of just silly stuff: Billy Bob teeth, goofy glasses. The kids love it. I have a good time. If you can’t clown around and have a good time, what the heck?