Around 2016, Street Volkswagen ran a radio advertisement to drum up business for its sales and service departments.
In the commercial, the dealership in Amarillo, Texas, offered to help consumers buy a vehicle they spotted elsewhere or transport a vehicle from out of town, owner John Luciano said. A few people took the store up on the offer.
Soon, Luciano and a few other dealership leaders realized that interest potentially could become something bigger. The store drew up a form for customers to fill out with make, model, year, mileage, trim and color specifications of a particular vehicle they wanted, Luciano said. The fledgling program got a name — Car Catcher — and a mascot of sorts, a caricature of a dog holding a magnifying glass.
“People want the car and don’t want to have to drive to Oklahoma City or Dallas or whatever. They’d rather deal with us,” Luciano said. “We charge them a flat fee to do it, and they love it. We do all the work.”
The program has resulted in incremental monthly vehicle sales for the store and has helped the dealership get trade-in vehicles and retain customers who weren’t able to find the exact vehicle they wanted on the Street Volkswagen lot.
Through the program, a customer can request a specific vehicle — 90 percent are for used cars, 80 percent for brands other than Volkswagen, Luciano said. A team of managers then search the Internet, wholesale auction providers, even other dealerships in a peer group, to track it down.
Many vehicles are acquired from other markets in Texas, including Dallas and Houston, as well as from Arizona and California. And the store has acquired vehicles for customers from as far away as Seattle and New Jersey, he said.
Street Volkswagen, which sells an average of 1,200 new and 1,600 used vehicles each year, charges a flat fee of $750 to find the vehicle, plus the cost of shipping, tax, titling, licensing and any reconditioning, Luciano said. He added that the amount the dealership pays for those services is the same amount the customer pays.
The program produced sales of roughly eight vehicles a month in its first two years, Luciano said.
Volume had increased to 15 Car Catcher deals a month until the last few months, when the figure climbed to 16 to 18. As the shortage of microchips has constrained new-vehicle inventory, fewer used vehicles are being traded in, he said, and that has spurred interest in the program.
“We’ll probably work 25 of them, but in a lot of cases I can’t find the car. It’s only as many as I can actually produce the car and come to a workable deal where they’ll agree to the price,” Luciano said. “Right now, that’s a little tougher because prices of cars are up.”
Some customers inquire about the program thinking it’s a way to a discount, he said. But that’s not the case.
“This is for you to get the car of your dreams, the car that you’re looking for,” Luciano said. “If you’re looking for an inexpensive, cheap car, you just need to come by the lot and let me show you what I have.”
The goal of the program is to acquire trade-in vehicles, create an opportunity to sell a car and create repeat customers who will return for future sales and service and possibly refer their friends to Street Volkswagen. Making it work requires a standard operating procedure, he said.
That starts with the customer form. The dealership requests multiple options for colors and trim levels to broaden the search. From there, he said, job roles are defined so employees know who will be responsible for searching for the vehicle, filling out paperwork and arranging for the vehicle to be shipped.
Street Volkswagen asks Car Catcher customers to fill out a credit application and agree to payment information prior to a vehicle purchase, though it does not hold the customer to the deal if a vehicle can’t be located, Luciano said.
Car Catcher can be a last resort for a customer when the dealership has exhausted all other options.
“We’ve walked the lot. We just don’t have anything. We don’t have anything coming in, and it’s going to be a case of just letting them go down the road and see if they can find it somewhere else,” he said. “Then we go into the conversation: ‘Would you like us to shop and try and find you [a vehicle]? … Let me tell you a little bit about a program we have. It’s called Car Catcher.’ ”