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ATLANTA — Global Imports BMW doesn't look like your typical auto dealership. Housed in what was formerly a set of two multi-story office buildings, the store doesn't have the conventional retail display that often characterizes dealerships in the U.S. 

Sitting on a landlocked location on an access road on a major interstate in the midst of busy Atlanta, the dealership is often challenged by space issues. Making it unique, as well, is the fact that it attracts more of the "destination" shoppers than the usual drive-by traffic.

"We are a destination store; we don't have drive-by traffic," said Randy Pullen, the dealership's pre-owned manager. "We have great visibility with no display. We are a landmark destination, but we're hard to get to."

Besides its distinctive structure and status as a destination dealership, what also sets the store apart is its six consecutive years of being named a BMW Center of Excellence store. This string of six straight honors has only happened only one other time in the program's history, the dealership's Web site indicated.

"We kind of compare that to our Atlanta Braves," Pullen said, referring to the city's major league baseball franchise that won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005.

The store — which is part of the Sonic Automotive Group — has also hit a home run on the used side. In fact, Pullen said Global Imports ranks in the top four nationwide for certified pre-owned sales.

Typically, Global Imports keeps 230 to 250 used units in its inventory, 150 of which are certified. In 2008, the store sold 1,220 CPO vehicles, and, as of late 2009, it was on pace to sell 1,320 last year, Pullen noted.

"It's great to have positive growth in tortuous waters," he commented. "We're proud of what we've been able to accomplish in troubled times."

Like many other dealerships around the country over the last two years, Global Imports has seen a shift in consumer preferences from new to used.

January 2008 is when Pullen said the tide started to turn toward used at his store, and for much of 2009, the used-to-new sales ratio held firm at 1.35 to 1.

"It's a reflection of the market and economic conditions, regionally and nationwide," he explained. 

Those same market conditions have also be pivotal in causing a significant used-car supply shortage throughout the industry.

As with many other dealerships, finding enough of the right used inventory is also a major challenge for Global Imports. Pullen said that, along with physical space issues, sourcing inventory is one of the store's two biggest challenges on the used-car side.

"Challenge one is inventory, maintaining a good, strong balance of inventory. We're fortunate that we have a decent portfolio that comes to us, but there's ebb and flow," he pointed out.

"We're constantly needing inventory in the BMW world, because there are never enough nice cars," Pullen added. "When you set that bar high, it's a tough challenge to continue to fill the pipeline."

So to meet these needs, Pullen said he leans heavily on the dealership's lease portfolio, as lessees return their vehicles to the store. This is where Pullen sources most of his used inventory, as he tries "to keep that (customer base) within our house."

"That's the foundation, and I support it with our trades, and lastly, I utilize remarketing auctions as our fillers," he noted.

Welcome to Atlanta

Though being a destination dealership on a major interstate pulls customers from all over, Pullen has noticed intricacies about being in the Atlanta market.

The city's complex diversity of business certainly has a positive impact on his operations, and seems to fit BMW well, as the automaker has grown to be the No. 1 luxury brand in the area, Pullen noted.

"I think, generally speaking, the Atlanta market as a whole is a young market. We have a very solid economic base that is diverse enough," he said. "There's still enough of an amount of business diversity here, because you can't put your finger on what runs Atlanta.

"Because it's a progressive, young, economically vibrant city, the BMW brand fits well to this region," Pullen continued. "It is the number one (luxury) brand in this region, in this market."

As far as the specific used cars that are popular at his store, Pullen has found that units on the moderate end of the price spectrum tend to do well, giving the example of an entry-level X3 SUV.

In fact, 75 percent of the used units sold are sub-$30,000.

"And that draws a lot of people into the market," Pullen shared. "That's where the sweet spot is right now."

Getting the Word Out

In an automotive landscape and economic environment where consumers — including luxury shoppers — have greatly shifted their preferences and spending habits, tailoring the right messages and utilizing effective techniques to drive store traffic is increasingly important.

So what strategies do Pullen and his store employ to keep used-car sales strong at the dealership?

"I don't think there's any unique magic to our strategy, per se," he explained. "The real difference is our attitude, our mindset as a store and how we treat customers."

It has also been important for Pullen and Global Imports to fine tune the "processes" of the dealership's used-vehicle operations.

"It's a matter of processes. We have tremendous processes that support high volume, especially in our certified pre-owned program," he explained. "(We have) very good turnaround time in reconditioning; we have great processes in getting those cars marketable.

"A combination of those things allows us to be successful and tip the scales in our favor," Pullen added.

He also noted that effective inventory practices have been crucial to the store's success, especially when it comes to finding the right pricing points to move aged inventory.

"We don't wholesale anything. We don't have to take aged inventory to auctions. We retail out. We find the price strike-point at the benefit of our customers," Pullen shared.

Explaining the pricing strategy the dealership has implemented, Pullen noted the structure is based on a fixed number of days a vehicle has been in the inventory.

In other words, when a unit hits a specific landmark for days on the lot, its price is adjusted.

"Those are Sonic strategies that we implement. We go through price changes at points, and we address with the staff," he shared. "We reduce it at certain points and we find that the strike price that ultimately the customer can buy it."

Pullen has also found that working cooperatively and side-by-side with the new-car department allows for both sides of the dealership to enjoy success.

"If we have a customer on the new-car side and it's ultimately not going to work, they send them here, and vice versa," he noted.

Importance of the Web

With ever-growing technology and the auto market's increased integration with the digital world, Pullen has emphasized the importance of keeping a strong presence on the Internet.

He said most of the marketing the dealership does is to drive traffic to Global Imports' Web site.

Also, the store began an eBay Motors program just over a year ago, and utilizes such tools as Facebook, not necessarily as a vehicle listing/sales avenue, but for branding and "to promote our brand and our dealership … to drive people to our store."

"It's all about the Net. It's about blanketing that presence," Pullen noted.

He added: "We don't do a lot of conventional advertising. We do a lot of events both with BMW and charities around the city. BMW, as a whole, is so supportive in this region as far as eventing.

"Everything we do right now is to drive them to the Web site. (We do) everything we can do to be proactive in the market," he continued.

Training Has Impact

The dealership has also been proactive when it comes to training the staff. Global Imports utilizes a number of techniques through both Sonic and BMW.

"Regarding training our staff and managers, we utilize every training tool available to us via our internal training with Sonic as well as BMW," Pullen emphasized. "We require each and every client adviser to complete Sonic Certified Training and supplement with any additional training classes that are offered throughout the year.

"BMW offers fabulous online training that we require each client adviser to complete each year and sending them to special classes offered, as well," he continued.

Pullen added: "We're always looking for better ways to educate ourselves and our staff, whether it's through training or technology."

Impact of BMW Brand

A widespread Internet presence, staff training and effective used-car processes all help benefit Global Imports' used-car operations.

But what Pullen pointed out as the No. 1 driver for success is the strength of the BMW brand and its reputation and awareness among consumers.

"That brand is first and foremost the main reason we're successful in today's market," he suggested. "BMW has developed such fantastic awareness for their cars. It's a trickle-down effect, and I think as a dealer, we ride on that coattail."

Although luxury shoppers have greatly changed their focus, the value that BMW and Global Imports can offer on the pre-owned side, in particular, has helped him overcome the challenges in a changing retail environment.

"It goes back to the model and what we're able to offer," Pullen commented. "For luxury shoppers in the pre-owned world, we offer absolute discriminating inventory in the upper level."