Photo of Brian Benoit

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

vehicle, Subaru, Nissan, Rogue, microchips, car, pandemic, SUV, year, people, truck, buying, hearing, supply, models, happening, website, business, appointment, drive

SPEAKERS

Brian Benoit, Synergy Media

Synergy Media 

I’m speaking with Brian Benoit, who’s the Vice President for the Anchor Auto Group in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. They have both the Nissan and Subaru franchises, Brian, thanks for joining us. How are you today?

Brian Benoit 

Great. How are you, Steve?

Synergy Media 

Good. Brian, thanks. I want to talk about auto sales for a minute. Since March of last year, you’ve had to deal with the pandemic and all the difficulties that came along with it. How did Anchor end up for the year of 2020?

Brian Benoit 

It actually went much better than we thought it was going to Steve. In the beginning, it was obviously scary – how was it going to affect business? How were we going to take care and protect our employees, our team, our customers? And overall, everybody did a great job. We did constant cleaning within the dealership, took care of all the protocols with masks and separators and distance… And we got a lot of customer feedback that they really felt safe when they came in. Overall, the year turned out great. If you had told us when COVID started that we would end the year that way we ended the year, we probably wouldn’t have believed it. We had some record months in there. We’ve been here as a Subaru dealer for 25 years and we had some 25 year records during the pandemic. We went outside the box. We did some business here, we did some business off premises, communicating with customers via zoom, just a lot of different things. We were flexible and we got it done, and customers were really understanding with everything going on. And again, there were a lot of things happening, but then there were a lot of good things that the manufacturers helped us with. They brought to the table things like 0% financing and some special incentives. Overall it was pretty incredible. Initially, it was very different. We had to post on our website that we couldn’t have any visitors without an appointment, because the number of visitors at any one time was really strict based on your square footage; that would dictate how many people you could have in the showroom at any given time. So we couldn’t just leave it open on, say, a busy Saturday, and just have a bunch of people coming in. So we moved to strictly appointments at that point, but as we’ve moved through the pandemic and gone through different phases, it has gotten back a little bit more to normal. We still can’t have lots of people milling around the showroom, but the only time we really have to be careful is on weekends when we get our most foot traffic through the door. We just have to make sure that we have personnel available to help anyone who’s in the showroom; we can’t have people milling around. We would love to have appointments for everybody, so we’re operating under the recommendation you make an appointment if it’s at all possible. And if you can’t, then we take it as it comes. It may get into a situation on a Saturday or a busy Sunday where we’ve had some folks wait in their car for five or 10 minutes before an appointment ended, and then we could take them in. So to answer your question, I would say in the beginning it was really different, really tight, sort of learn as you go, and now it’s a little bit more back to normal.

Synergy Media

And now we’re into a new year. How’s business so far?

Brian Benoit

Yeah, January ended up being one of our better Januaries in our 25-year history for both Subaru and Nissan next door. We were up over 20% across the board. We’ve been very busy; it just seems to be a continuation of how last year had gone and how it ended, so we’re very encouraged. February has started off pretty much the same; the snow throws some monkey wrenches into particular days, but we seem to make it up, and now we’re in the middle of the Presidents’ Day Weekend sales that are going on right now. And it’s been very brisk. So we’re very fortunate. We’re busy. We’re working hard and things are going pretty well.

Synergy Media

Have you found at all that the pandemic has shifted people’s attitudes towards individual vehicle ownership? Seems like there’s been a lot of talk over the last year about people rethinking ride-sharing, individual vehicle rentals, even public transportation.

Brian Benoit

You know, we heard a lot more of that in the beginning. I’m not sure how much of that has lingered and is still going on now. I don’t hear as much of it from our customers. I don’t hear that kind of chatter, either here on the showroom floor or through our internet or virtual contact with customers. I’m sure that lingers in the back of their minds a little bit. There’s going to be question marks until we’re all the way vaccinated, and everybody’s feeling 100% comfortable, and we get to retire the masks. I’m sure there’s a level of concern there for ride sharing, and maybe public transportation and things like that. That may have fed into some of our results from last year.

Synergy Media

Let’s talk about Subaru for a minute. We’ve read reports about Subaru coming out with a new brand, or rather a sub-brand under the Subaru name. It’ll be called Wilderness. Has the factory given you all the details on that rollout yet?

Brian Benoit

They haven’t given us a whole lot of details about it, just some scant information that we’re getting from Subaru, but it appears we’re going to have some more aggressive models in terms of some lift kits, some vehicles with more off-road capability than what the current models already have. Obviously, it’s geared more towards a specific purchaser or application. But, yeah, they’re going to have some slight changes in the look of the car, I’m sure there’ll be some different packages, but mainly it’s going to be a lifted suspension so the vehicles will have more off road capabilities. We’re hearing that it’s going to be the Outback first, followed by the Forester, and that early summer is when we should start seeing this as an option.

Synergy Media

Let’s shift over to Nissan. Nissan has a multitude of new products in the pipeline, some that have just come out and more coming. I know the new Rogue is already in showrooms. What can you tell us about these new products from Nissan?

Brian Benoit

Well, we’ve been a Nissan dealer for 12 years now – great product, great company – but I’ve never been as excited about the new stuff coming out as I am this year. A lot of times when new vehicles come out, they’re really just minor facelifts, and from ten feet away, you really can’t tell the difference between the ’19 and the ’20, or the ’18 and the ’19. And in this case, the Rogue the Nissan Pathfinder, and the Nissan Frontier have all been completely redesigned from the ground up. So to answer your question, I’ll start with the new Rogue. It doesn’t look like a station wagon or a car that’s been made into an SUV. This vehicle looks like an SUV, looks like it’s got a lot of truck traits to it, yet it’s so polished, it’s so solid. The interior is just awesome, with the big screens on the dash and the way that the consoles are set up -it’s just very, very nice looking. The rear of the vehicle’s now a little more squared off, a little more truck-looking. There’s a little more room in them, they’re quieter. They have cutting edge technology in terms of the forward collision braking, blind spot detection, and cameras all around. These things are becoming more and more standard features throughout the line. We’re so confident in this new Rogue, Steve, and so excited about it that we actually went out and purchased a 2021 Toyota RAV4 XLE and we have it here sitting side by side. So folks who are maybe considering a RAV or thinking about a RAV – we would love to have those customers come here and drive the Rogue, drive the RAV as a comparison, and let the vehicles speak for themselves. I mean, some folks will come and drive a car, and then next weekend they’ll go and drive the competition, and then they’ll try to make a decision. We didn’t want that. We’re so confident we didn’t want that to happen. We said hey, the best way to do this is to drive it now, then drive the other one while the first one is fresh in your mind, and then make your decision. And although I’m biased, I’ve got to tell you, that Rogue has got something on this RAV. And the RAV is a great vehicle and they sell a lot. But I think if these Toyota buyers maybe give the Rogue a fair shake, they will be pleasantly surprised.

Synergy Media

That’s great. The small SUV segment is becoming more and more important, so the new Rogue should do very well.

Brian Benoit

Absolutely, Nissan’s done a great job. We’ve got the Rogue Sport, which is a smaller version of the Rogue for that small SUV market, which is getting redesigned by the end of the year, the new Rogue that just came out, and then the Pathfinder, which is a little bit bigger as a seven passenger vehicle. Really, that vehicle used to kind of have a station wagon or minivan look to it. It really had a tame look, but now that’s completely gone. It’s got all the attributes of a truck/SUV, as I said earlier squared off in the back, unbelievable interior. And folks may love to hear this – Nissan’s beginning to move into 9-speed transmission. So that Pathfinder and the new Frontier are going to have a 9-speed transmission, which is just very responsive, very smooth, great fuel economy. I would encourage folks to take a look at either our website or the Nissan USA website, where they have all the information on the unveiling of the new Pathfinder, the new Frontier, and the Rogue. We’ve waited about ten years for that new Frontier; it hasn’t gone through a major facelift in that time. And they’ve been working on it, working on it, working on it, and now it’s finally coming. So, Pathfinders are due to hit dealerships around April, Frontiers scheduled to hit us in early fall. And again, I would encourage folks to take a look at what those look like on Nissan USA’s website; the Frontier is just a phenomenal truck.

Synergy Media

Yeah, the midsize pickup segment is another important one.

Brian Benoit

I’ll be able to be able to trade in my ’19 Frontier and get myself one of the new Frontiers. They are really, really awesome looking.

Synergy Media

Staying with Nissan, there’s a lot of buzz in the industry about the all new, all electric midsize SUV, the Ariya.

Brian Benoit

Yeah! This is a 100% electric, no gasoline, zero-emission plug in vehicle. We’ve had the Leaf for a long time, but frankly it doesn’t command a lot of attention in the market – it just didn’t have the distance. And it’s battery charge that people felt comfortable, you know, would go 100 120 miles before you’d need another charge in today’s day and age of the of the Tesla’s and so forth that are starting at 250 and 300. The Leaf wasn’t really a viable option. It also looked like a spacey, hybrid kind of vehicle. This new Ariya is a sport utility vehicle, it’s an SUV. First and foremost, the styling is just unbelievable from the outside, while interior-wise it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen, either at Nissan or at Subaru, quite frankly, or even at Infiniti. The interior on this vehicle is unbelievable. A lot of the controls and a lot of what you see is actually buried behind the dashboard, and the whole dashboard lights up once you touch it – it’s just incredible. But the biggest thing is, it’s going to be an all-wheel drive vehicle with just a little under 400 horsepower, and it will be able to get 300 miles to a charge. So that’s a game changer. When Nissan becomes a player in the electric market, that’s going to feed everything else that Nissan does, because -let’s be honest with ourselves – electric vehicles are where this is all going. I mean, for anybody who watched the Super Bowl, they watched GM commercial where they’ve made a commitment by 2030 or 20, early 2030s everything’s electric. So, I mean, that’s where we’re all headed. So it’s exciting that not only are we going to have a vehicle that can get you the distance you need, but it’ll be powerful. It’ll be safe. It’ll be all wheel drive. And it’ll be great looking. All at the same time. So looking forward to it, though I don’t have an idea on how quickly we’re going to see that, whether that’s later on this year or early next, but stay posted. We’ll let you know.

Synergy Media

Let’s switch gears here. I want to talk for a minute about something we don’t usually talk about when it comes to the car industry. And that’s microchips. We’re hearing a lot about a looming shortage of microchips. What can you tell us about that?

Brian Benoit

First of all, this is industry-wide. It’s not going to be an isolated problem for just Subaru or just Nissan or just Honda, Toyota, Mazda…. This isn’t as if, say, Subaru is having a problem with their all wheel drive. From what I understand, the microchip companies are having trouble supplying all manufacturers with the microchips that are so prevalent in cars today. Let’s be honest, everything that happens in a car is happening electronically these days. And there are a lot of safety features. There’s a lot going on there and computerization is the key to it all. So these microchips are in short supply and I’m not sure if this is COVID driven. I’m not 100% sure, I just know that we started hearing some grumblings about this a few months ago. And now all of a sudden, it’s a top topic of conversation when we have our meetings with our manufacturers about upcoming allocations, supply, and what’s going on in the supply chain. For instance, over the next three months, our supply of Subarus coming into New England will be cut by almost 40%. That’s a lot of vehicles that you’re taking off availability, and we’re already seeing some of it now. The Subaru Ascent, our seven passenger SUV that has been very, very popular. We’ve had a very busy weekend selling all of our models, but especially the Ascent, and we are now completely sold out of Ascents, and we’re selling off the ones that are coming in. As the microchip problem slows down manufacturing, our supply is going to be reflective of that. So if folks see a vehicle out there that they want, and it’s there, I wouldn’t hesitate too much over the next few months, because it’s definitely going to be an issue. And then those things sort of trickle down. The same thing happened with COVID. Back in the summertime, plants were shut down for six, eight, nine weeks. They weren’t building any vehicles. So by the time they got back online and started building and got the cars built and got them shipped and got them to us, we were two, three months down the line. So what that ended up doing was really putting so much focus on the used car market, then pre-owned prices went through the roof, and it was really a weird kind of summer. So I don’t know all the technicalities of the chip problem. I just know without those chips, obviously you have some supply and demand issues. It’s a domino effect. So I think we’re going to see some of that for the next six months. How much, I really don’t know, but 40% the first three months…that’s a lot of cars to not be available.

Synergy Media

You brought up used cars, and let’s talk about that for a minute.  When I look at Anchor’s used inventory, both in Subaru and Nissan. it seems like you have cornered the market on the most popular models. For some of them, you have nearly a hundred, and that’s just for one year and one model. Can you tell me why and how you do that?

Brian Benoit

It’s sort of in our DNA, Steve. As you know, we started off as a small used car dealership over 30 years ago now, a long time ago. We started off as used car guys and it’s a market we know very, very well. And when we became a Subaru dealer back in the ’90s, the one thing that we brought to the table that a lot of dealers didn’t was that used market knowledge. We always said, we’re going to be the place where, if you want a particular model, if you want a particular color, if you want even the hard to get stuff, we’re going to be able to provide it, we’re always going to have a lot of inventory. That was sort of our mantra right from the beginning. When we started with Subaru, we always had three times more pre-owned inventory than we did new. Now Subaru has grown immensely through those 25 years, and we certainly have a lot of new car inventory. But you know, other dealers will say, hey, we’ve got choice, come on down, if we don’t have it, we can get it. It’s the same old, same old no matter who you talk to. But with us, it’s a reality. I mean, we don’t have 40 or 50 used vehicles in stock – we have five or six hundred in stock between our two stores, which are on basically one footprint. We’ve got 38 acres here. Whatever is not taken up by the buildings is inventory space, and we’ve got it full. So yeah, if you want a particular used vehicle, if you’re looking for something kind of rare, we have it. What goes hand-in-hand with that is that we buy in volume, so we’re able to buy at the right prices, and then we’re able to price maybe a little more aggressively than somebody that maybe only has one or two and has a harder time finding inventory. We’ve got inventory for sure, and we move it. What also goes hand-in-hand with that is trade-ins. We are super aggressive on trade-ins – we know what vehicles are worth, and we even also know that sometimes the best spot for a vehicle might not be New England in the winter! Somebody who’s trading in a sports car right now might not think they’ll get enough money for it because of the time of year, but in reality, we have outlets to sell vehicles all over the country, and we do that. So we’re very, very aggressive on the trade-ins. We’ve got our prices locked down tight on our pre-owned inventory and we have a lot to choose from. Really, if you came here or went to the website, you could spend a lot of time shopping around and then put a bow on the whole thing. We don’t mess around with cars that have been in accidents. We buy a lot of vehicles, we parse through a lot of vehicles, and what we make available is the best of the best of what’s out there. We don’t buy on the fringes, we’re not buying vehicles from down south and bringing them in and wondering if they’ve been in floods or anything. All of our vehicles are local vehicles. We’ve got complete histories on them. We go through them soup to nuts through our service departments, which are, by the way, some of the best in New England. We’ve got great service departments with very skilled, very seasoned technicians. They know what they’re doing. I’ll put our inventory up against anybody’s. You won’t find 100 Subarus or 100 Nissans at a CarMax, anywhere. If these are the vehicles you’re looking for, we have them. We’ve also got a pretty good selection of some non-Subaru, non-Nissans. We’ve got a lot of trucks, a lot of SUVs. So that’s sort of our fastball, if you will. I mean, that’s what we do. That’s where we came from.

Synergy Media

Lastly, I want to touch a bit on digital retail. There’s been a big push in the industry for it, and with the pandemic, every dealer wants to have the ability to sell cars right from their website. Have consumers embraced online buying, or do they still want to come in and see the car in person and test drive it?

Brian Benoit

That’s a pretty hot topic these days, especially with the manufacturers, with Subaru and Nissan. If you listen to them, or listen to industry experts, they make it sound like everybody wants to buy a car like they shop on Amazon. They want to sit on the couch in their pajamas, scroll through some cars online, select the car, figure out what their payments are going to be, apply for financing, get the OK, and either come in and pick the car up or have the car delivered to them. To answer your question, Steve, I would say there are varying degrees of that happening, but not as much as you would think. Not for the complete process. Imagine doing everything without ever seeing the car, touching it, driving it, so forth. The first time you see it is when it’s delivered to you in your driveway, and you’re signing a couple pieces of paper and it’s done. With the pandemic, you would think that would have forced that type of behavior more. A lot of the experts are telling us that’s going to happen, but I would just say that it happened less than you would think. Overall, I think at some level, we’re headed in that direction, but I still think a major purchase like this automobile, there are still a lot of questions. How does this car feel? How does it handle? There’s also a lot of, okay, who am I buying this vehicle from? What’s the expertise? Buying the vehicle takes an hour, maybe two hours, but the ownership is years and years and years. And in that time, you’re going to need the dealership in terms of service, or if something happens to the vehicle in an accident, who’s going to fix it? How am I going to get alternate transportation? All of these things come up. I think the “who” when doing business is still a big piece. We’re not at the point yet – and I don’t know that we’ll ever totally get there – where buying a car is like buying a book or a pair of shoes on Amazon. A car is a much bigger investment. Most people are making payments over several years. It’s a bigger thing. That all being said, we’re equipped to be able to do it. People can go on our website, where there’s a step-by-step process. They can select a vehicle, see how it’s priced, move on to working out some payments for financing or leasing, so they can see what their payments might be. If they’re comfortable with what they’re seeing there, they can even get a rough assessment on their trade-in. So we have an appraisal tool there where they can punch in all the information on their vehicle, get as detailed as they want, and get an estimate. A lot of times those estimates aren’t completely accurate. A lot of times, because of our experience in the market, we can usually do a little bit better than what some of these online estimators give, but we have it there so people can get a rough idea of what their vehicle is worth, and if they have a balance on their vehicle they can punch that in, and the tool will calculate the payments out for them. If they’re completely happy with that and want to go even further, they can fill out a secure credit application online. That goes right into our finance office portal – no one sees it within the dealership – it goes securely and gets pushed right over to Subaru or Nissan or wherever we’re using for financing. They can get an approval back or an answer back, usually within minutes. Now from that point there’s a decision to make. Do you want to come in, sign paperwork, see the car, drive it, have us look at the trade-in before everything gets finalized? Or are we going to do this at your residence or at your place of business. And we can accommodate both. And as we move further on in being able to do this, we’re going to be able to remotely get signatures via iPads and things like that. Oddly enough, we’d be further along with this process, but the Registry of Motor Vehicles kind of holds us up a little bit. In a day and age when you can use a DocuSign and you could do a real estate transaction completely online without ever being in a lawyer’s office, and it’s legal and binding and all set, we can do a lot of it that way, but we can’t do all of it that way because the RMV is at this point is still looking for wet signatures on pieces of paper. So we do still have to get some paperwork signed, but it’s moving in the right direction. And, you know, this whole COVID situation has accelerated the need for things like the Registry of Motor Vehicles to look at how they’re doing business, and how they can accommodate customers in this sort of modern retail world. It’s an interesting thing, this digital retailing, and we’ll see how it goes. We can do things all in person, we can do some online and some in person, or we can do it all online. We’re capable of doing it all. Where it all ends up, we’ll see.

Synergy Media

Well, Brian, we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today. We’ve learned a lot and look forward to talking with you again.

Brian Benoit

All right. Thanks a lot, Steve. Look forward to talking to you again.