Car dealerships need women in sales to win female customers

'Boys club' culture at showrooms hurts sales

A man looks at a Honda Motor Co. Fit Hybrid vehicle on display outside a company showroom in Tokyo, Japan, on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. Honda is scheduled to report first-quarter earnings figures today. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
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Alana Barragan says she was so put off by the high-pressure sales pitch she encountered while car shopping at AutoNation Honda in Fremont, California, that she did not buy one.

After discussing the experience with a manager, he spent the next hour trying to hire her.

Ms Barragan now sells about 18 vehicles a month for the store and finds women are some of her best customers. But car shoppers are hard pressed to find many salesmen like her. Even as women make or influence the majority of auto purchases in the United States, retailers have failed to attract and retain female employees, according to CDK Global, which advises dealerships on sales strategies.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get into this,” Ms Barragan says of joining AutoNation Honda in January. “I could be more open and honest to customers and give them an experience that I would want. The customers appreciate that.”

Women make up about 19 per cent of US dealership employees and most of those are support staff, according to the latest estimates from the National Automobile Dealers Association. The annual turnover rate for the few women who do sell cars is 88 per cent, CDK says, meaning would-be buyers interested in negotiating with a female dealer may find themselves fresh out of luck.

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“By dealerships not attracting and retaining women in the workforce, they are potentially missing out on a huge sales opportunity,” says Grace Wepler, a senior market research analyst for CDK.

The lack of women on car dealers’ sales floors starts with lacklustre hiring efforts. More than 60 per cent of female dealership employees surveyed by CDK in May said their companies were not doing anything to help to recruit more women.

When women do get recruited, many say they find dealerships still are not a welcoming place. More than half whom CDK surveyed have been in their current position for six or more years, suggesting upward mobility is an obstacle. And 57 per cent reported experiencing gender bias, such as having to endure boorish, sexist banter.

“A lot of people are intimidated by the industry because it’s a male-dominated field,” says Ms Barragan, 31, who previously sold appliances at Sears. “Initially the guys tried to say, ‘Oh, let me help you, let me do that for you.’ You just have to stand up to them and show them your confidence and say ‘I’ve got this.’”

Kathy Caron, the general manager of Hopper Buick GMC Dealership in Ontario, Canada, describes the industry as “a boys' club” and says women do not seek out jobs in dealerships because they are intimidated by that fact.

“I’ve gone to big GM functions, and I always say you never have to wait in line for the women’s washroom,” says Ms Caron, who was among the CDK survey participants.

Sales roles in particular have a poor representation of women because of the long hours and lack of flexibility, says Judy Farcus Serra, the chief financial officer of Headquarter Hyundai in Sanford, Florida.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog kind of set up, an every man for them self kind of environment on the sales floor,” says Ms Serra, another CDK survey participant. Women need mentors to offer advice and support and few get such help, she said.

Women tend to get more support if they work in a dealership run by other women, with 63 per cent saying the gender ratio in key positions was favourable at women-run dealerships compared with 29 per cent in those run by men, CDK found. Women were also much less likely to be harassed, according to respondents.

General Motors is trying to increase the number of women owning Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac franchises from 243 stores, or 5.5 per cent of its dealer network, says Jim Cain, a spokesman for the car maker. About 450 women have been named successors at existing dealerships and the largest US car maker has an advocacy, mentoring and business development programme as well as scholarships dedicated to these efforts, he says.

AutoNation, the largest dealer group in the country, has set goals to hire more women into general manager roles and at every other level of the company, says Andrea Schliessman, a senior director of learning and development.

The share of women running AutoNation dealerships has increased to 7 per cent this year from 4 per cent in 2012, and the number of assistant service managers has more than doubled to exceed 300 in that time frame, says Dan Best, the head of human resources for the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company.

AutoNation also is rethinking compensation and schedules to help recruit more women. Rather than pay employees entirely on commission and sometimes require them to work seven days a week, they can now opt to receive about half their pay in salary and also work closer to a 40 hour week, according to Mr Best.

Whether employees are compensated with partial salary or pure commission, total pay ranges from about US$42,000 to $47,000 for a starting sales associate, and the more flexible schedule can be attractive to female candidates, Mr Best says.

“Late last year we started looking at changing things that had been a barrier to women and other employees,” Ms Schliessman says. So far this year, she says about 20 per cent of new hires are women.

Ms Barragan says she ultimately bought a used Honda Civic from another dealer the day she was turned off by the sales pitch at AutoNation Honda. She is now one of four women at the dealership selling alongside about 25 men.

“I do feel that women are more comfortable working with a woman sales associate,” says Ms Barragan, who eventually bought a new vehicle from her current employer. “They can feel like there’s a little more trust, maybe, that we’re not trying to just push something on them. Even as a customer myself, I felt that way, too. I didn’t want someone pushing something on me.”