An Inside Look At Sonic Automotive’s First Strictly Pre-Owned Dealership, EchoPark

November 2, 2015 2 Comments

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“It’s not a problem” at Sonic Automotive Group’s first strictly pre-owned venture, EchoPark.

Marti Eulberg, director of brand management at Sonic Automotive, recently gave DrivingSales News an extensive tour of EchoPark in Thornton, Colorado. The vibe within the used car superstore developed by the nation’s fifth largest automotive retailer is very “chill” … 10-minute appraisal? … free snacks from a local food truck? … want to bring in the whole family? … free car washes for life? … don’t want to talk to anybody? “It’s not a problem!” Eulberg reiterated throughout the 90-minute tour.

The pilot market for EchoPark was Denver metro, where Sonic opened stores in Thornton, Centennial, and Highlands Branch in the latter part of 2014. In the hub and spoke model, EchoPark Thornton has the largest footprint and serves as the market’s center. A key value offering in this model is that a guest can test-drive any inventory within the market at the location of their choice by appointment, or within two hours, at no charge.

The over 60,000 square-foot facility has 40 service bays (where techs perform reconditioning for the entire market) and space for up to 700 cars in inventory. The Thornton team is selling between 300 and 400 cars per month. With just under a year in business, EchoPark is growing its brand presence in the Denver area and recently broke ground on two more satellite stores in the market.

During the development phase of EchoPark, Eulberg personally traveled throughout the United States exploring high-volume used car operations to identify customer pain points in transactions. Beyond the industry, she explored modernity in shopping and buying utilizing hospitality and digital retail to identify contemporary trends in design and consumer expectations outside automotive.

With the majority of her industry experience from the manufacturer side, Eulberg said the strictly pre-owned model provides an easy landscape for design elements. Without having to respect manufacturer corporate identity, they were able to “have a little bit of fun.” EchoPark, where “Every Car deserves a Happy Owner,” does have a park-like feel. Vehicles for sale are pushed back from the roadway and winding pathways that encourage meandering surround a large fire pit near the building’s entrance. Simple language like “take a spin,” “keep me running,” and “wash me,” communicate what different areas within the store do versus traditional dealership language.

EchoPark is aiming to break the transaction mentality and take advantage of opportunities to create relationships with customers by allowing the guest to dictate the process. Eulberg said the design, interactions with sales associates (the official title is Experience Guide), processes, and community presence are not meant to solely remove the negative, but add a positive experience for guests. “We’re here to help you, we’re not here to sell you,” she said.

Digital Environment

When a shopper comes to EchoPark, one person is always near the entrance to greet guests. Hovering salespeople are replaced with an “imagine bar,” or research stations equipped with an iPad and accompanying mini-theater screen that displays the vehicle’s imagery while the customer explores inventory. When a guest works with an experience guide, the interaction is assisted by an iPad. As the transaction moves toward sale, managers can monitor activity behind the scenes and a Document Specialist prepares any paper documents that require wet signatures. F&I products are presented by the Experience Guide with video assistance. The guest can literally build their monthly payment and self-sell based on their needs. Digital signage for guest service queue, upcoming events, and promotions create a clean and consistent environment shoppers.

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Centralized Appraisal – “Every car deserves a second opinion”

The “Quote Me” station at EchoPark is a bright indoor bay where the guest can actively participate in the appraisal process with the Experience Guide. A large screen displays resources customers might use when researching a fair price for trade: CarFax, AutoCheck, Black Book, NADA, KBB and Manheim. While the Experience Guide photographs the vehicle and notes vehicle history provided by the customer, the information is immediately transmitted to the RTC or Retail Trade Center in Charlotte. The RTC utilizes market data and data from all Sonic stores to establish the offering in as little as 10 minutes.

“Our goal is to give you as much as we can for that car, because then you’ll do business with us,” Marti Eulberg said. “It’s better for us because I’m not paying auction prices, I’m not paying transportation, we recondition right here on-site; it fits with our business model.”

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Employee Alignment

As Eulberg strolls about the store, employees greet her and the “outsiders” with big smiles and pleasantries. Turnover is low at EchoPark; Sonic’s overall employee turnover will be less than 25 percent this year with sales associates under 40 percent. Eulberg says it’s because employees are salaried, they get days off, they’re not working 80 hours a week, and they work as a team.

Sonic’s executive leadership avoided individuals with previous automotive experience when hiring and recruiting staff for EchoPark. An expanded human capital team drove the effort to select attitudes that fit the model and develop extensive training to ensure their success and growth.

Employee-only spaces reflect the same design features as the customer-facing ones. “Amenities for employees are just as nice as what we put out for our guests so it’s an easy comfortable experience,” Eulberg said. Because there are no traditional desks in the showroom, there are both casual beanbag style and cubicle-type employee spaces for employees to study, make phone calls, and rest.

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Community Connection

Bright and colorful lifestyle artwork throughout the store was created by Denver School of the Arts. Each store has a community room where EchoPark offers educational sessions to improve driver safety and locals can also host events at no charge. On two Saturdays a month EchoPark brings in a local food truck. Customers and community members can enjoy a free bite and Eulberg shamelessly enjoys the effects of cross branding on social media. “We wanted our guests to be able to use our facility and we want them to come see us.” Eulberg said.

EchoPark offers an unconventional program for private sellers as well. For vehicle sellers who have found a private party to purchase their vehicle on a site like Craigslist, they can utilize EchoPark for an appraisal, CarFax report, inspection, and documents necessary to transfer ownership.

The words “Selfless & Communal, Honest & Transparent, Agile & Disruptive” are printed in big bold lettering in a hallway frequented by employees. EchoPark was a bold leap for Sonic, whose market cap is around $1.14 billion. Early 2015 financials raised eyebrows of industry skeptics due to pretax charges and only modest increases in revenue and net income. While the approach may deviate from the standard metrics for now, it’s hard to argue that their core values are spot on.

About the Author:

The DrivingSales News team is dedicated to breaking the relevant and the tough stories affecting car dealers. Have questions for DrivingSales News? Reach the team at news@drivingsales.com.
    Stephen

    They get it.

    David Ruggles

    Texas Cars Direct also has an interesting model and sells big numbers. As always, in the pre-owned business you make your money when you buy the car, not when you sell it. As long as their acquisition process is sound they should do okay, perhaps even well. I am always leery to hear volume numbers only. It makes me think they aren’t being transparent.