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Car Dealer Lessons from Beowulf


The epic poem Beowulf is a thousand year old story packed with metaphors and learning about a journey of self-discovery.  As originally written, it sheds insight into the very nature of our human spirit and the fragile existence within which most of us construct paradigms about our lives and what is going on around us.

If you bear with me through a few more paragraphs, I'll show you exactly how awesome the original fable was and how relevant it is to an understanding of the car business of today.

Forget what you saw if you went to the recent computer generated, Angelina Jolie version in the theaters.  Hollywood has a way of twisting the classics to a state that everything that made them classics is lost.  For those not familiar with it, I'll summarize the original Beowulf poem, then move on to explore the life and business lessons that are relevant to everyone in the car business (that's right, the car business and Beowulf... you read it here first).

In the original poem, the monster Grendel attacks the hall of the king Hrothgar.  Impervious to the attack of men's weapons, Grendel kills many of Hrothgar's men instilling dread and foreboding upon the kingdom.

Hearing of the kingdom's plight, the hero Beowulf arrives and using a warrior's might and nothing except brute force, mortally wounds Grendel by ripping Grendel's arm from his body with his bare hands.

Believing the enemy to be defeated, the entire kingdom rejoices only to have their celebration murderously interrupted by Grendel's mother.  Grendel's mother kills far more than Grendel ever did to avenge her dead son.

Tracking Gendel's mother back to her cave, Beowulf descends and battles the monster.  All of his earthly weapons and might can shield him but not defeat the monster.  Only by seizing the monster's own weapon and weilding it against her is Beowulf able to defeat Grendel's mother and save the kingdom.

That is the story that has withstood countless retellings over a thousand years.  Beowulf does not sleep with Grendel's mother (sorry Angelina, but it was an interesting new spin).  Now let's layer in the metaphoric understanding to the original tale:

  • Grendel is the threat of change to the established status quo and our own comfort with the way we want things to be.
  • Grendel's mother is fear itself.
  • The most skilled among us (Beowulf) can beat back the threat of change (Grendel) using brute force, extreme skill and age old tactics that have always worked.
  • However the root causes of the fear that created the threat of change (Grendel's mother) can not be defeated in the same manner.
  • Only by weilding the very weapons possessed by the fear itself and using them with skill is the monster able to be defeated.

Pretty cool, but there is more... and remember, this was written a thousand years ago...

Any parallels to the car business of our age?  Consider:

  • The Internet of the 90's was Gendel.  It was the threat of massive and immediate change...For 75+ years dealerships controlled access to vehicle purchase information and consumers' ability to buy a vehicle.
  • Up until the Dotcom crash in March of 2000, car dealers were under threat of "disintermediation" / others taking over their role in the marketplace by pure Internet startups such as
  • Rising to the challenge, car dealers rallied, changed the laws in many states to prohibit anyone other than licensed dealerships to sell vehicles to consumers and Grendel was defeated
  • However, as in Beowulf, Grendel's mother remained.  The Internet and consumers' desire for a better buying experience and access to information has not gone away and if anything has intensified.
  • Since the Dotcom crash of 2000, Grendel's mother has been ravaging the kingdom of car dealers.
  • For many car dealers, gross profits are down, their volume has been siphoned off by more Internet savvy dealers, their costs have gone up (BDC, CRM, SEO, SEM, staff, training, etc) and they directly attribute the change and their frustration to the Internet.
  • Third party lead providers have entirely come to dominate the landscape of attracting and harvesting consumers' vehicle buying interest.
  • Grendel's mother is far worse than Grendel ever was.
  • And it is not just car dealers.  Car dealers have actually fared quite well compared to the ravages being experienced in other industries.  Just look what the Internet has done to travel agents, the music industry and so on.
  • Consider too what the Internet has done to the businesses dealers  rely upon to fill their showrooms.  Newspapers are being referred to as "The Dead Tree Industry" as their revenues and circulation are in a free fall.
  • Do you think Grendel's mother is going to pass the automotive business over?
  • Do you think consumers are going to want to submit Internet leads, call or come in to your showroom if they can do most or all of their car shopping online?
  • Do you think that consumers are going to feel an obligation to buy from you in your showroom because they go on a demo ride there?  Or are they going to go on the demo ride and buy the way they are comfortable?

When CapGemini studied the market in July 2007 they found that 1 in 5 "in market" vehicle consumers said they would buy online if the capability existed.  20% of the consumers surveyed said that not even knowing that the capability does exist.  Is 20% of the market (up from 2% in 2001) a big enough number to make you take notice?

Remember too that transactional websites a.k.a. shopping cart ecommerce systems for car dealers are NOT going to change the number of vehicles sold in the market... just from whom they are bought.

Now let's go back to Beowulf.  I promised a life lesson here.  Do you remember the only path to defeating Grendel's mother?  It was only when the best of the establishment sensed their imminent defeat with traditional methods, challenged their fear and seized the very instruments of their fear and weilded them with the skill they had honed traditionally that they were victorious.

As Cliff Banks of Wards Dealer Business wrote yesterday:

"Here's something I don't have an opinion on - direct selling online... AutoNation currently is piloting a system that allows customers to complete the buying process online in its Atlanta stores... Lithia Motors is pushing the concept in its used-car superstores branded as L2..."

Shopping cart ecommerce is fundamentally different from leads... although it does generate them.  Shopping cart ecommerce:

  • lowers consumer trust barrier with your car dealerships
  • gives you a powerful "competitive differentiator" message to use in your marketing (Ai-Dealer's service comes with a 30-50 mile franchise-exclusive territory)
  • Can be installed in as little as a week (although 2 months is more typical) at a cost of less than many newspaper ads
  • Is the real deal for consumers

So as my friend Shaun Raines, the CEO of Dealer Advisor says "What are you giving yourself for the holidays?  Got Cart?"

Giving car dealership a gift for the holidays?  How about a shopping cart to sell cars online to your consumers?

If not, does the Internet as the manifestation of consumers' desire for a better car buying experience (Grendel's mother) have you worried?

Going in to 2008 which is shaping up to be one of the worst vehicle sales years in a long time... What are you intending to do to grow, survive and thrive in a down economy?  Can you cut and save your way to prosperity while fighting Grendel's mother?

Should you choose to pick up Grendel's mother's weapon and join Ai-Dealer and our dealers on their shopping cart ecommerce journey, we will coach and guide you on the other things you should be doing too - Calls to Action on your websites, SEM messages, online service appointments, online accessory sales, etc.  That is why I write each week and surround myself with what I consider to be the best in class vendors in this field.  I want nothing but the best for every car dealer I know.

Even if you aren't ready yet to confront Grendel's mother and learn how to use her own weapons against her, at least I hope you find these articles interesting if not educational.

If you would like to make a comment or share a thought on this article, please do so on our forum which we make available for that purpose.  Click here to go to the forum.