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Car dealerships turn advertising, sales focus to women

| Saturday, April 18, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
Katie Shorkey-Mrdjenovich is part owner in the Shorkey Auto Group and has become the face of the business. Part of the reason she was featured in the commercials was because the advertising agency felt she had more of a “soccer mom” look that would sell a particular mini-van known as the Kia Rondo. It was so successful that they have featured her in other spots since.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
Katie Shorkey-Mrdjenovich is part owner in the Shorkey Auto Group and has become the face of the business. Part of the reason she was featured in the commercials was because the advertising agency felt she had more of a “soccer mom” look that would sell a particular mini-van known as the Kia Rondo. It was so successful that they have featured her in other spots since.

Buying a car used to be a painful experience for Cathy Wedel until she met Katie Shorkey-Mrdjenovich.

“I hated car dealerships. I always felt like they were piranhas,” said Wedel, 58, of North Huntingdon.

Anyone who has seen the television commercials for Jim Shorkey Auto Group will recognize Shorkey-Mrdjenovich. A young, 33-year-old mom, approachable and nonthreatening. There to help, not haggle over price.

Shorkey-Mrdjenovich has become the face of the dealerships she owns and manages with her family, a decision that appears to play to women customers, who are becoming primary breadwinners in American households and make more buying decisions.

The changing market and growing prominence of women in leadership positions, including some at the top of the auto dealerships and manufacturers, have transformed attitudes in an industry that historically catered to the most macho men.

A softer approach

Dealers have responded to the changing demographic by softening their sales approach and simplifying pricing. For example, #1 Cochran and Baierl Automotive offer haggle-free service. Shorkey recently eliminated sales commissions so it won't influence negotiations with customers.

Advertising campaigns are focused squarely on women buyers. Dealerships have emphasized messages of trust and comfort, often delivered by women, even as they diversify their workforce and simplify pricing to make the experience more inviting to women.

“The representation of women as a consumer group is making organizations pay attention,” said Audrey Murrell, an associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh's undergraduate school for business, who studies gender equity and women in leadership.

Last year, women accounted for 4.8 million new vehicle registrations, or 40 percent of the market, according to registration data collected by IHS Automotive. That was up from 2.8 million, or 37 percent of the market, five years earlier.

The growth of women drivers is leading to changes in advertising pitches. Fewer bikini blondes appealing to male drivers and more female executives, such as Shorkey-Mrdjenovich, to whom female buyers can relate and trust.

Wedel says Shorkey-Mrdjenovich is as genuine as she seems in the ads for Jim Shorkey Auto Group. And as a result, Wedel's family has leased or bought six cars with Shorkey, including two Jeep Compasses, two Kia Optimas, a Dodge Challenger and a Nitro.

“I'm partial to Katie,” Wedel said.

Expanding the market

The Great Recession and near collapse of the American auto industry spurred manufacturers and dealers to broaden their perspective, said Anne Fleming, president of Women-Drivers.com, which tracks women in the industry and is based in Wexford.

“They were coming out of 2009 and 2010 in a very humbling time and they were starting to look at what can we do to expand our market,” Fleming said.

Fleming advises car dealerships on how they can craft their messages to women buyers. Developing a comfortable atmosphere based on respect and trust is key, she said. And women trust other women.

Customer testimonials and reviews written by women are important, she said. So is featuring women in advertisements.

“But if you look across the entire automotive supply chain, what you're starting to see is more women across the board, from the manufacturing side to the distribution and sales side,” Murrell said.

Last year, 27.4 percent of employees in auto manufacturing were women, up from 25.6 percent in 2004, according to the Labor Department. Mary Barra became the first woman to run a major auto manufacturer when she was promoted to chief executive officer at General Motors last year.

Only a small proportion of dealerships — less than 3 percent — are owned by women in the United States, but among those are several prominent dealers in the Pittsburgh market.

Day Automotive Group and Diehl Automotive Group are two of them.

Diehl owner Corina Diehl is in all her commercials, appearing with celebrities like ex-Steeler Brett Keisel or sometimes by herself. In one, she is alone and talking directly to the camera, describing her business as an inviting place where customers should not be intimidated by tough sales tactics.

She uses words like “comfortable,” “trusting” and “safe,” and even directly addresses working moms.

“Do you know how hard it is to go to the grocery store, let alone to take a car in for service?” she says. “I'm a single mom. I get it.”

In a recent interview, Diehl said she hears from women customers often.

“I get lots of emails from women who thank me after they come in and tell me they appreciate my help and a women-owned business,” she said.

Increasing diversity

Shorkey-Mrdjenovich has appeared in radio and TV ads since 2009. She said the company wants to portray a genuine and softer image to both men and women. But it was mothers Shorkey Auto Group had in mind when she did her first radio spot.

It was for the Kia Rondo, a minivan that was very much a “soccer-mom” type of vehicle, Shorkey-Mrdjenovich said. Her dad, who owned the company, didn't seem the right person to pitch the car, so she recorded the radio spot instead. They developed print advertisements featuring a mom with two kids in soccer uniforms. The campaign was a huge success, she said.

Like Diehl, Shorkey-Mrdjenovich said she isn't trying to appeal only to women, but wants the tone of the commercials to be inclusive and friendly.

“It's natural because that's how we are,” she said. “It's hopefully relatable and accessible.”

Being accessible goes beyond advertising, however, and extends to the sales floor, Fleming said.

Women tend to do more research than men before walking into the dealership and know what they want, she said. They are less interested in negotiating the sale than driving off with the car they want.

So, a big challenge is diversifying sales floors. One in five dealership employees in the United States is female, but they tend to be concentrated in back-office positions or reception.

Of the 90 sales people at Shorkey, 29 are women, Shorkey-Mrdjenovich said. The company recently began offering a four-day workweek to accommodate salespeople with families, which she said might help attract more women.

At Diehl, only two of 18 sales staff members are women.

“It's harder to get women in the sales world because of the hours,” Corina Diehl said. “I'd love to see more women in a sales position.”

Customer biases

Even if dealers attract greater diversity to their staffs, they will still confront customer biases — even among women — that favor men.

Mary Martin, 23, of Dawson, was out car shopping one recent Saturday with her partner, Scott Marra, at Diehl of Robinson. Martin did not mind that most of the salespeople were men. She even assumed they might know about cars. The dealership being woman-owned did not influence Martin's choice of where to shop. In fact, she had no idea who Corina Diehl was.

“It's funny, when we were coming out here, we were joking, ‘Hey, Mr. Diehl. Let's make a deal,' ” she said. “We just assumed it was a man.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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