A RULE OF THUMB at car dealerships has been that for every four salesmen hired, one will stick. One of the nation's biggest dealership companies is trying to improve the odds -- by hiring more women.
Starting this summer, recruiters for Florida and Texas dealerships owned by Asbury Automotive Group, Inc. plan to spend afternoons at the local mall, looking for outgoing, helpful women selling clothes at the Gap or appliances at Sears. The recruiters plan to make a discreet approach, pass along a business card and ask the saleswomen if they would consider selling cars.
The hours at car dealerships are just as long as at retail stores, but the pay can be double or more, with sales-floor compensation, including wages, commissions and bonuses, running as high as $80,000 a year.
If the mall recruiting program works, Asbury plans to roll it out at about 70 of its 94 dealerships in the South, parts of California and elsewhere.
Asbury's plan comes as women are playing a bigger role in car purchases, influencing 81% of new-vehicle purchases last year, compared with 65% a decade earlier and less than half in 1985, according to CNW Marketing Research Inc. Meanwhile, several surveys have found many women would prefer to buy a car from another woman.
Some evidence suggests women may even be better at selling cars than men. Saleswomen are less likely than their male counterparts to ignore female customers or to ask them if their boyfriend or husband is helping finance the purchase, according to a 2005 market study conducted by CNW using "mystery shoppers."
And CNW has found 9.5% of men actually preferred to buy a car from a woman, compared with 8.9% who preferred a man (81.6% had no preference). Both men and women, however, prefer a man working behind the parts counter and servicing their vehicles.
That some of his female mall recruits will have no experience with cars doesn't present much of a problem for Ken Jackson, a human-resources vice president at Asbury, based in New York. The company tells new sales recruits to be honest with customers: Instead of answering a question with wrong information, they are supposed to admit they don't know and refer the customer to a manager.
"We would like somebody that has sales initiative, somebody that is money-motivated, that has good communication skills," Mr. Jackson says. "You can teach them the product and you can train them on the mechanics of selling the product." New hires get one to two weeks of training and also may go through manufacturers' online certification and off-site training programs.
At Asbury, about 11% of the sales force is female. Mr. Jackson says he'd like to increase the figure to at least 50%. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, only about 10% of the sales staff at the average franchised dealer was female in a 2005 survey, up from 8% in 2004. In contrast, about half of U.S. retail-industry employees in 2005 were women, including 74% of those working in clothing stores, 64% in department stores and 43% in furniture stores, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Women who do work in car sales or who own dealerships often come from families in the auto business. Only about 8% of car dealerships last year were owned by women, CNW says. Yet these dealerships averaged about 75 sales a month, compared with about 72 sales a month at dealerships owned by men.
Recruiting for sales at the mall fits into the industry's broader effort to find more attractive sales and management candidates, and reduce turnover. Sales-employee turnover at the typical new-car franchise dealer reached 51% in 2004, up from 44% in 2003, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. That's a problem in an era of thinning profit margins, when retaining customers for service and repeat sales matters more than it used to. Asbury also has established a career path into management for sales employees.
Asbury initiated a formal mall recruiting program after learning that some dealerships were already making the tactic pay off. At Coggin Nissan on Atlantic, an Asbury dealership in Jacksonville, Fla., Jacquelyn Myers Williams, a 53-year-old sales consultant, sold shoes at a local Dillard's department store before switching to car sales. She was recruited three years ago by one of her best shoe customers, a salesman who worked at the dealership. He persuaded her she would make more money selling cars.
"He was persistent," Ms. Myers Williams recalls. During her best month selling shoes, she says she sold about $35,000 of shoes, earning about $1,700 in commissions -- about equal to the sales commission for one car. She says she is an average performer, selling from 10 to 17 cars a month.
She says she knew "absolutely nothing" about cars before she took the job. But she went through training and started each work day by getting into a car, reading the owner's manual and taking it for a spin. "Selling in a department store with women -- that's a struggle," Ms. Myers Williams says. She recalls telling her new colleagues, "I hope you don't think you are going to intimidate me because you are men."
Kaylene Cohen, 48 years old and manager for preowned Lexuses at Asbury's Plaza Motors near St. Louis, says her co-workers thought she was a blond bimbo when she started in car sales eight years ago, because she had previously managed a Gap and lacked auto-sales experience. But she liked cars. She says the dealership paid for her to attend a training program where she learned about engines and manufacturing. Now, she says, she believes her co-workers respect her. "They know I'm a hard worker and a good salesperson, so I've kind of earned my way."
Actively recruiting women is acceptable under U.S. employment law if the businesses aren't getting adequate numbers of female applicants, says Neil Bernstein, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. The practice would become questionable, however, if a dealership also was refusing to hire qualified men or putting a quota on the number of men hired. "The mere fact dealerships are trying to expand their horizon and attract women . . . is OK," he says.
Liza Borches, the owner of a Virginia car dealership, Volvo of Charlottesville, says she has made recruiting women for sales a priority. Women tend to be more organized than men and do a better job of building their own client base, she says. "The biggest key is simply finding nontraditional ways of recruiting [them]," she says.
Retaining saleswomen can be even more of a challenge than finding them. A locker-room mentality prevails at many dealerships. Asbury says it puts its employees through behavioral and harassment training. Mr. Jackson says the company warns women who are job candidates that they will be in a male-dominated environment. "You don't want anybody to feel they are walking into a complete blue sky," he says. "That would be the quickest way to have someone leave."