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Rutherford & Bond Toyota, Wellington

It's been a year of challenge and change for this dealership.

RB Hunter Mitchell 2

A year-long multi-million-dollar project to upgrade and refurbish Rutherford & Bond Toyota’s central Wellington site has brought light, space, and a fresh focus on customer comforts.

Principal Dealer Hunter Mitchell says the upgrade included developing a wide covered area, where customers can drop off their vehicles for servicing, and another covered area known as the ‘delivery suite’, where new cars are handed over to their owners.

“We also remodelled the Lexus and Toyota showrooms and earthquake strengthened our five-floor parking building,” he says.

Last year was one of challenge and change for the dealership. It was business as usual while the refurbishment took place around staff and vehicles, Toyota introduced its new fixed-price sales model, and demand for Toyota and Lexus hybrids took off.

Hybrid fever

“The new model Corollas are selling well,” says Hunter The hybrid uptake has been phenomenal, so much that some customers have to wait a few months for delivery.”

The new Corolla hit the market in April and around half of those being sold by the dealership are hybrids.

“The new Rav4 is being launched soon and it too has a hybrid. We’re expecting it to be hugely popular, perhaps as much as 60 to 65 percent of Rav4 sales.”

Hunter says much of the surge in interest is down to pricing. “The Corolla hybrid is just $3,000 more than the base petrol model and just $1,500 more than the ZR spec Corolla. Previously, the gap was around $8,000 above the petrol model.”

The big spike in fuel prices in the latter part of 2018 also triggered huge interest in the hybrids. “Weekends were incredibly busy with enquiries.”

This year, the dealership plans to stock half of its used car site with hybrids to help meet the demand - all selling at their price on the windscreen. “By 2023 we’re expecting all Toyota models to have a hybrid or electric option.” Agency model.

Change in sales model

Hunter is a strong supporter of the fixed price ‘agency model’ introduced by Toyota in April last year. “It’s a fantastic concept but we’re in a transition phase; both sales staff and customers are still adjusting to fixed prices on both purchases and servicing. Ten months in, we are seeing the benefits. People can get onto the website, see the prices and know that everyone is paying the same price.

“It’s tough when you have 20 percent of the market and were renowned as big discounters. Now we are showing people how the price represents great value. Our cars must represent good value and have to grab the customer’s attention.”

Hunter says that these days customers do most of their shopping around online and then make one or two visits to a dealership before buying their car. “In the past it was five or six visits.” Toyota has invested heavily in upgrading its national website and improving its usability.

Sales people have also had to adjust too. “You can’t throw in a towbar or offer the 15 percent discount you’ve given to the customer for his previous Corollas. The price is the price.” Hunter says Toyota vehicle sales were steady last year, but the dealer portion was down a little. “The drop only affected the biggest dealerships in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. I think people are now buying locally instead of going into the big cities, knowing they’ll still get the same price wherever they buy their new Toyota. In 2019, with the new emphasis on customer service, we are expecting to do really well under the agency model.”

RB Lexus Paul Kelly
Half of all Lexus models sold in New Zealand are hybrids and customers at Rutherford & Bond are warmly welcomed in the Lexus showroom by sales assistant Paul Kelly.

For dealerships, there’s an ever-more important focus on customer service and that includes making sure they are welcomed, comfortable and cosseted. Hunter says “Part of the refurbishment included providing a covered drop-off area, so customers and service staff are out of the weather while a pre-service handover and inspection is carried out.

“We also introduced a fast service bay where two technicians are dedicated to a speedy turnaround. Customers can wait in our lounge for about 45 minutes while the service is done.” Hunter says this makes the visit easier for the customer, and also saves the dealership on valued parking space.

Despite having a five-storey car parking building with around 60 spaces, Rutherford & Bond Toyota also lease car parking spaces nearby. “We have about 70-80 cars come through the service centre each day.” Staffing

Like most dealerships, keeping qualified staff, whether they are auto technicians or sales consultants, is a top priority.

“Our biggest threat in Wellington has been the Transmission Gully roading project which is offering high wages to technicians. It’s meant we’ve had to bring in a couple of high-end Toyota-trained diagnostic guys from overseas.”
Hunter says finding sales staff is also a struggle – weekend work is a barrier to some and there is ongoing training, particularly in the first year or so. To make it more attractive, Hunter says Rutherford & Bond pays higher salaries than others in the sector in Wellington and offers flexible rosters.

Overall, the dealership is in great shape to take on 2019.