Spokane Journal of Business

Jennifer’s Auto Sales still growing despite industry’s woes

Used-car dealer expects to double sales this year due partly to move

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Jennifer Johnson, who uses the motto Save Your Green when marketing her Jennifers Auto Sales used-car dealership, says shes relying on the dealerships reputation for offering quality, affordable vehicles to fuel its growth in an ailing industry.

Last November, Jennifers Auto Sales tripled its space when it moved to the site of a former RV dealership, at 15020 E. Sprague, from the spot at 17416 E. Sprague it had occupied for a decade. The move allowed the dealership to double its inventory and its work force, she says. She expects the dealerships revenues will double this year compared with last year, even as it faces what Johnson calls the most difficult period for the auto industry in her 31-year career.

My philosophy has always been that you can buy another car, but you cannot replace a customer, Johnson says. We dont take advantage of people, and we want to keep that reputation because repeat and referral business is so important.

Johnson, a Spokane Valley native, started her career in auto sales in 1977. A single mother of two, she was driving through Spokane in her old Toyota during a snowstorm, using her hands as windshield wipers, with a newspaper lying in the passenger seat that included an ad for a sales position at the former Buchanan Chevrolet dealership here. The job paid $250 a week and included training and a Monte Carlo car. Johnson arrived at the dealerships doorstep a few minutes after closing. The manager told her all of the available positions had been filled, but she convinced him to give her a job anyway.

I drove away that night in my new Monte Carlo and never looked back, Johnson says.

In the years following, Johnson worked at 15 dealerships, including the Appleway Automotive Group, in Spokane Valley, where she worked her way up to general manager of its Subaru and Toyota stores.

Johnson says that working in the male-dominated auto industry has been challenging, but the desire to provide for her children was the fuel that kept her going.

A lot of men didnt want women in the business, but I had one goal, and that was feeding my two children, she says. I said, Im going to be the best that I know how to be, and if anyone gets in my way, stand aside.

Johnson decided to start her own dealership in 1997, because she didnt want to work for everybody else. She opened Jennifers Greenacres Auto Sales in March of that year, hiring two employees and scraping together enough money to buy 10 cars for the quarter-acre lot. Business grew slowly, but by last year, the dealership was busting at the seams of its small lot and 1,600-square-foot building, she says.

Johnson, who sold the old location and dropped Greenacres from the dealerships name, says she chose the new site, at the southwest corner of Sprague Avenue and Progress Road, because it has more space, more traffic, and better visibility. The 5 1/2-acre site has a 10,000-square-foot building that includes offices and a service shop, as well as an RV storage lot that has room for 100 vehicles, she says. It also is home to a historic one-room schoolhouse, which Johnson is renovating with personal funds. She expects that work on the century-old building will be completed by October, and she plans to open the building for public tours.

Jennifers Auto Sales has an inventory of 120 vehicles, up from 60 at its old location, and the site can accommodate 300 vehicles, she says. The dealership has 17 employees, up from eight before the move, and now includes a retail service shop, she says. She declines to disclose the dealerships annual revenues, but says she expects them to double this year, due largely to the increased inventory it now has.

Were paying the bills, and were in a profitable situation, she says.

The vehicles that the dealership sells typically are no older than eight years old and have 80,000 miles on them or less, Johnson says. The dealership doesnt sell new cars. The average price of a vehicle is $13,000, and the dealership sells an average of about 80 cars a month. All vehicles are fully serviced through the shop before the customer drives them off the lot, she says.

The goal is to make them look and feel as new as a used-car can be, Johnson says.

While the larger site and the new retail service shop have contributed to the dealerships strong growth, Johnson attributes part of the dealerships continued profitability to its proficiency in buying cars that meet consumers changing demands. Under current market conditions, that means offering vehicles the average customer can afford and staying away from the gas hogs, she says.

My buyer fills the lot with cars that people want; we dont have cars sitting on the lot for too long, Johnson asserts. We have a good feel for the market and continue to supply what people are looking for.

The dealership offers 50 financing options for customers with good credit, bad credit, and anything in between, she says. It has a good reputation among banks and has never received a complaint through the Better Business Bureau, she asserts.

The dealership also has sought to send a consistent marketing message, built around the Save Your Green motto, so that people know who we are, Johnson says. She started using that slogan at the suggestion of her marketing agent, Mary Kae Repp, of Spokane Valley-based Genesis Marketing. Repp visited the dealership in its third year of operation, and told Johnson she thought that it needed a branding strategy, rather than having ads scattered all over the place.

I asked her, Well how would you advertise it? She said, I would say, Save Your Green, Johnson says.

The dealership spends roughly $10,000 a month on advertisements, she says. Its marketing strategy, which includes ads as well as its Web site, has helped it gain customers from across the region, as well as from places such as Montana, California, and Alaska, she says.

People need to be able to find you; name recognition is really important, Johnson says. The consistency of our ads has really been beneficial to the growth of our business.

She says the dealerships Web site also has helped fuel its growth. Her daughter, Darcy Gillingham, manages the site.

We are well-searched on the Internet and that has been a huge help, she says. We also have reliable salespeople and a low staff turnover. I have salespeople who have been here for 10 years.

Johnsons husband, Paul Johnson, is a salesman at the dealership. Her son, Bill Gillingham, isnt involved in the business.

Johnson, who is a past president of the Auburn, Wash.-based Washington State Independent Auto Dealers Association, says that used-car businesses in general are faring better than new-car dealers right now, largely because of the national economic slowdown and skyrocketing gas prices.

I heard someone with Ford Motor Co. say that if you are close to being in profit as a new car dealer, you are a hero, she says. The market is that awful.

As a result of the decline in demand, though, Johnson says its a great time to buy a vehicle, because prices have dropped. Interest rates also are low, which provides an additional incentive to buy, she says.

Johnson says that the Spokane auto market seems to be holding up better than other markets in the U.S.

Contact Emily Proffitt at (509) 344-1265 or via e-mail at emilyp@spokanejournal.com.

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