A flood of incentives that are keeping new car costs low and helping buyers speed through the purchase process has helped boost consumer satisfaction with the auto dealership experience to new highs this year.
The finding in the widely watched J.D. Power & Associates annual sales satisfaction study released Thursday is supported by other sales studies.
"Scores have been moving up pretty steadily for the past decade," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., an automotive research and consulting company in Tustin, Calif. "Most of the manufacturers have got religion and have been training and coercing their dealers to improve the way they handle customers."
The car shopper's sales experience is based on a number of items, including the cleanliness of a dealership's restrooms. But it is made -- or broken -- during price negotiations.
"Anything you can do to speed up negotiations, to give your customers honest information and to speed them through the purchase process will help your satisfaction scores," Peterson said.
By minimizing the negotiating process, General Motors Corp.'s mainline Saturn brand captured the top spot in the Power study, its third consecutive No. 1 placing for customer satisfaction with the purchase process. This year's top score of 886 points was off slightly from 887 last year. The industry average of 839 points was up after stagnating at 835 for the previous two years.
Saturn dealers have exclusive territories and don't stray from the posted manufacturer's suggested retail price. That means they don't have to compete with one another. And they don't have customers worrying about getting a better price at another Saturn dealership, and thus don't have to pressure shoppers to "buy now or else," said Steve Witten, senior director of automotive research at Los Angeles-based J.D. Power.
And while luxury and upscale brands from domestic and import automakers dominate the list of top scorers -- after middle-of-the-road Saturn's top finish -- blue collar brands Ford and Chevrolet also finished above the industry average.
"It reflects the Big Three's extreme push to clean up their dealers' acts," said David Healey, auto industry analyst for Burnham Securities Inc.
Among domestics, only Dodge and Jeep fell below the industry average in the new Power study.
Still, "the domestics aren't necessarily getting a lot better while others aren't," Witten said. "Everyone is benefiting from all the incentives, and that has made all the scores go up."
There's no clear correlation, though, between sales satisfaction and increased sales volume. Three mainstream import carmakers that have been logging major market share gains in the United States -- Toyota, Honda and Nissan -- all failed to place above the industry average in the last few Power sales studies.
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