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TrueCar: Is It Time For Car Dealers To Reevaluate?

Is It Time To Reevaluate Your Opinion About TrueCar?


I have seen many issues polarize dealers, and at times energize them during my 30 years in the car business. Very few issues have rallied so many people in the auto industry to cry out than the advent of TrueCar’s advertising campaign in the Fall of 2011.  In fact, since the creation of the two automotive professional networks I am involved with, and, there has been no other issue that has attracted even a tenth of the visitors to these sites, or engagement in the form of comments and subsequent posts… From October 2011 through January 2012 the most popular subject matter on many online sites catering to people working in the car business was the thorough vilifying of TrueCar. 


Meanwhile, the outcry from dealers reached a crescendo of volume that was enough to get many State Dealer Associations and a handful of state regulators to “investigate” TrueCar for potential violation of everything from brokering without a license, to operating out of compliance with advertising regulations. 


Amazingly enough, despite all the name calling and personal bashing that executives at TrueCar received, not a single “cease and desist” letter was sent, or lawsuit was filed by TrueCar against those of us who pushed our criticism of TrueCar beyond the boundaries of civilized and professional discussion or debate.  In hindsight, I am very surprised that TrueCar took such a beating without resorting to legal measures against some of the worst name callers and accusers, including yours truly!


After receiving several phone calls and speaking with Scott Painter in December 2011 I put off visiting TrueCar’s headquarters at their invitation until just a few weeks ago.  My first encounter with TrueCar executives on a face to face basis was in March 2012, at the Automotive Leadership Roundtable in Miami, FL.  Bernie Brenner from TrueCar’s board came over to my table and asked me if I would sit with the TrueCar team during the lunch session and discuss changes they were making to their business model.  Curiosity piqued, I accepted.  Looking back on that lunch, I gave the TrueCar executive team a fairly strong rebuttal… I was polite, but explained my objections to their business model as inserting an unnecessary dealer expense.  Mike Timmons, Bernie Brenner and a couple other TrueCar executives were polite, rational in their explanations and determined to convince me that they had seen many of the problems with their pricing models and were making changes so that TrueCar would make sense for dealers as a means of acquiring incremental business at about half of what the NADA average cost of advertising is Per Vehicle Retailed (PVR).  At the time I remained resolute in my stated opinion that TrueCar was a bad deal for car dealers.  However, I will admit that maintaining that opinion in the light of new information, changes TrueCar was making and the logic around their affinity model was already starting to erode the certainty I had in my position on TrueCar… Not that I was admitting any of that at the time!


The next time I saw any TrueCar executives was at Digital Dealer 12 in Orlando last April… Bernie Brenner approached me and asked me to bring any dealers who were avid TrueCar haters to him so he could meet them and listen to their grievances.   Seemed like an odd request, but he was sincere and the entire TrueCar team was looking for people with negative perceptions of their company so they could show them all the aspects of their business model that had been changed, so that with new information these dealers might reevaluate their perception of the benefits of doing business with TrueCar.


What I have since learned is that from the beginning of January through May of 2012, TrueCar experienced a large number of dealers cancelling their TrueCar agreements and dropping out of the TrueCar program.  This, combined with various state legislative issues is what prompted TrueCar to make so many dramatic changes to the way they do business.  They simply had to change in order to move forward.  Something that more people in the car business ought to consider!


When I accepted TrueCar’s invitation to visit their headquarters in Santa Monica, CA the timing was perfect… I arrived the day before a “all hands on deck” meeting where every TrueCar employee who works out of the headquarters was traveling in to attend.  During my visit and tour I was able to spend more than an hour of quality time in detailed conversation with Scott Painter.  Mike Timmons arrived a couple hours after I did and took me on a tour to meet various team leaders and department heads in the two building that TrueCar operates out of.  I met many people and watched a team of TrueCar employees working directly with dealers all over the country, helping them to put deals together and sell cars.  The people I met were intelligent, well spoken and knew what their part of the TrueCar mission was, and how it tied into selling cars.  What I found was hardly a bastion of evil, nor were there any indicators that they were trying to eliminate car dealers or harm anyone working in a dealership.  Like many companies I have visited, such as Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, Dealix, AutoUSA, Cobalt, Reynolds, ADP and others, what I found at TrueCar was over 250 people who are educated and intelligent going about their specific duties and focused on generating more car sales for their participating dealers. 


So, what about all these so called “changes” that TrueCar has made since the end of 2011? Let’s take a look at ten of them, why TrueCar made the changes and their intended impact.


10 Key TrueCar Changes – January to April 2012


In late 2011, TrueCar started receiving significant feedback – much of it critical – from the automotive retailing industry including dealers, dealer associations, manufacturers and industry consultants.  In the first half of 2012, TrueCar made substantial changes to address industry concerns.  By no means is TrueCar finished with implementing changes and revisions, but they do feel they have taken the necessary actions to ensure TrueCar is acting as a key auto industry partner. 


Listed below are 10 key changes that TrueCar provided to me, which I subsequently edited for greater accuracy. I have validated this list with people inside and outside of TrueCar, as well viewed related documents supporting the implementation of these changes and further verified with dealers currently using TrueCar:


1. Changed Website Experience Nationwide and Billing Model in Certain States to Address Regulatory Compliance Concerns


What TrueCar Heard:  Through trade publications, dealer association communications and social media sites, there was a lot of attention on whether TrueCar’s business model complied with the existing regulatory framework in certain states.


What TrueCar Did:  Completely overhauled its website experience to address state-specific concerns related to advertising regulations.  Among other changes, dealers no longer communicate price offers relative to invoice through the TrueCar website experience.  Additionally, “bait and switch” concerns have been addressed through website features expressly clarifying that users who use the website to explore the new car market are configuring “virtual vehicles” – not vehicles that are actually in inventory at participating dealers.  TrueCar has also implemented a subscription-based billing model in certain states.  30 of the 50 states continue with TrueCar’s pay for performance model, while 19 other states have variations designed to comply with that state’s laws.  Louisiana remains a state not served by TrueCar.


2. Overhauled Display of Information on TrueCar Price Curves and Dealer Portal to Address Dealer Concerns


What TrueCar Heard:  Though not their intent, TrueCar heard loud and clear from dealers that the TrueCar price curves and Dealer Portal did not provide the most contextualized, relevant, and informative display of information to assist consumers and dealers.  


What TrueCar Did:  TrueCar realizes that their success depends on providing services that result in a better car buying experience for dealers and consumers.   TrueCar changed the TrueCar price curves in January to provide more robust, comprehensive data that allows consumers to understand what constitutes a “fair” price in the current market.  They also switched from providing “network-pricing” information in the Dealer Portal (which focused on the pricing of other TrueCar dealers) to providing “market-based” pricing information driven by recent transactions in the dealer’s local market area (not just transactions by TrueCar dealers).


3. Reduced DMS Data Received From Dealers


What We Heard:  A small number of industry consultants used social media sites (such as Automotive Digital Marketing and dealerELITE) to spread misinformation that participating dealers’ sales matching data was being used to create the TrueCar price curves and/or that TrueCar actively markets to customers found in the dealers’ DMS.  TrueCar data security executives swear, and all evidence I have seen shows that these are both myths. 


What TrueCar Did:  TrueCar only requires dealers to provide customer contact information (name, address, phone, email for buyer and co-buyer) and basic vehicle information (VIN, make/model/trim, year, new/used, stock number, sale date) in order to perform the sales matching, billing (in states with performance-based billing models), dealer scoring and analytics and reporting aspects of their business.  TrueCar does not directly access dealer DMS systems and they never have.   Their data extraction, normalization and compilation is handled by respected third-party vendors, such as Digital Motorworks (DMi) and Netlink.   All dealers also have the option to “push” their sales matching data via FTP to TrueCar’s third-party vendors; the data received by TrueCar is the same whether the dealer chooses automated or manual sales data reporting.  To address concerns that TrueCar was receiving extraneous data from its third-party vendors, TrueCar worked with both Digital Motorworks (DMi) and Netlink in February, 2012 to remove all unused fields from the data feeds sent to TrueCar, reducing the fields to just those listed above. Although I was aware that this was a false objection to TrueCar as far back as last December, it still seems like a lot of people in the business are under the false assumption that TrueCar uses DMS data for pricing curves. The reality is that they do not need DMS data to do their pricing reports, and what they would get from participating dealer DMS would be inadequate to provide the reporting they do.


4. Rolled Out More “Dealer-Friendly” Dealer Agreement, Including Indemnification


What TrueCar Heard:  Some dealers told TrueCar that the dealer agreement needed to be more fair to the dealer.


What TrueCar Did:  In February, they rolled out a new dealer agreement, the key aspects of which include:  (i) dealers can cancel at any time for any or no reason; (ii) more clarity and control on how dealers provide sales reporting data to TrueCar; (iii) confirmation that the dealers’ sales reporting data is NOT used to create TrueCar price curves; and (iv) confirmation that dealers’ sales reporting data is NOT used to send marketing-related communications to customers.  In April, TrueCar added a limited indemnification provision to the new dealer agreement.  The decision to indemnify dealers is another manifestation of TrueCar’s commitment to their dealer partners and underscores that they are fully invested in standing behind the services that TrueCar provides to dealers.


5. Launched TrueCar National Dealer Council


What TrueCar Heard:  Many dealers, dealer associations and manufacturers expressed concern that TrueCar was making major product, process and policy changes without incorporating feedback from dealers.


What TrueCar Did:  In April, 2012 TrueCar launched a National Dealer Council with 20 Members representing 24 states, 35 unique makes and 281 franchises.  The purpose of the Council is to ensure TrueCar is actively listening to dealers, and the Council is chaired by Gary Marcotte (former SVP Marketing & Strategy at AutoNation).  The inaugural full-day Council meeting in April was reported as being "excellent" by those who participated, and TrueCar executives received much appreciated feedback from the Dealer Council Members.  Going forward, the Council will meet periodically with TrueCar senior executives to provide guidance on how TrueCar can improve the services it provides to dealers.


6. Initiated Dealer Associations Outreach


What TrueCar Learned:  TrueCar had not historically communicated with state and large metro dealer associations and paid a price for not directly engaging this important constituency.


What TrueCar Did:  In March, TrueCar hired Pat Watson, VP of Industry Relations, to directly communicate and work collaboratively with dealer associations on how to help their mutual partners – dealers.  Pat is the former CEO of the South Carolina Automobile Dealers Association, where he worked for 38 years.


7. Started Participating In Key Industry Conferences


What TrueCar Learned:  Prior to 2012, TrueCar did not have an active presence at key industry conferences, which was perceived by some as an indication that TrueCar did not care to engage directly with the industry.


What TrueCar Did:  In 2012, TrueCar has sponsored and actively participated at key industry conferences, including Automotive Leadership Roundtable in March and Digital Dealer 12 in April, and the upcoming AutoCon 2012 in September.  TrueCar will continue to have an active presence at future conferences, including Digital Dealer 13, Driving Sales, J.D. Power Automotive Internet Roundtable, various 20 Groups, trade associations and dealer group events.


8. Improved TrueCar’s Social Media Response and Presence


What TrueCar Learned:  Social media can be a powerful medium for individuals in the automotive retail industry to share opinions and stories that shape perceptions of many automotive professionals.


What TrueCar Did:  Mike Timmons, EVP of TrueCar and an auto retailing veteran (VP Operations AutoNation; independent auto dealer; new car sales and management) has taken ownership of monitoring and responding as appropriate to social media related to TrueCar and industry-related issues. Additionally, Mike has directly reached out to key TrueCar detractors to understand and address their concerns, as well as to correct any misinformation, and he will continue to do so.  In the future, TrueCar will be taking a more proactive approach to leverage social media to showcase their product, services and changes in the way they do business.


9. Increased Communication With Manufacturers


Before:  Previously, TrueCar’s communication with manufacturers was sporadic and reactionary, sometimes leading to significant misconceptions.


What TrueCar Did:  In the past four months, Larry Dominique, EVP Data Solutions, with over 27 years of OEM experience (former VP Advanced and Product Planning and Strategy, Nissan, plus stints at GM and Chrysler), has met with key decision makers from 20 car companies to listen to their concerns and inform them as to what TrueCar is really all about.  Going forward, TrueCar will continue to directly engage with OEM management to discuss ways that TrueCar can improve the services it provides to their dealer networks.


10. Added More Dealer Support


What TrueCar Heard:  Dealers told TrueCar they want more face time and direct support from TrueCar dealer-facing personnel.


What TrueCar Did:  In the first four months of 2012, they added 13 new employees to the TrueCar Dealer Development Team, including Ken Potter (VP Dealer Development; former VP & GM of Internet Brands / CarsDirect; former GM of two dealerships), Amir Rizkalla (Director Account Management; formerly of Fisker Automotive and Toyota), two Area Sales Managers and four Account Managers.   TrueCar is currently looking to hire 9 additional dealer-facing employees in the next 60 days, including six more Area Sales Managers (Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Seattle, Des Moines, and St. Louis) as well as two more Account Managers, to ensure that they are adequately staffed to continue providing dealers with the level of support they want and need.


After traveling to TrueCar headquarters on a Monday in July and then visiting Southern California dealers, I returned home to Phoenix on Tuesday evening.  Later that week I had an appointment with the owners and management team at Courtesy Chevrolet in Phoenix.  This is the same Courtesy Chevrolet that I worked at from 2005 to 2007, and I have a close bond with the leadership team there… During my visit, which was to convince them to attend AutoCon 2012, I mentioned visiting TrueCar headquarters earlier in the week.  The response I received from the owner and several managers was “we really like the TrueCar program, they have gotten a lot better about invoicing us and the business we get from them seems to be purely incremental… deals we would not otherwise have made.”


These statements and the discussions I had with the team at Courtesy, as well as all the information I had witnessed firsthand during my meetings at TrueCar, and from the conversations I had with at least a dozen TrueCar employees lead me to a conclusion I feel very certain about.  It would be foolish for any dealer to ignore the changes that TrueCar has made and not reevaluate whether to do business with TrueCar based on the new information available and the changes TrueCar has made to the way they do business.

Researched and written by Ralph Paglia - The above represents my own perceptions and opinions, and does not necessarily reflect those of the ADM editorial staff or its members.


Be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about this topic and many relevant issues focused on growing a competitive advantage in automotive retail by registering and attending AutoCon 2012 in Las Vegas at the Aria Resort Conference Center from September 5th to the 8th...

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Comment by Ralph Paglia on October 16, 2012 at 6:46pm
I met with Mike Timmons from TrueCar today... There is so much more to this story, much of which I have sworn to keep a lid on until the embargo is lifted. But, I will say that TrueCar continues to evolve and develop a much more dealer focused perspective. One thing I see from them that I have not seen from many other large automotive suppliers is a willingness to listen, acknowledge, explore and respond to recommendations, criticism and compliments. I will predict that the 20% to 25% of franchised new vehicle dealers who are partnered with TrueCar at the EOY 2012 will be very happy they were on the program a few years from now.

Just remember this, when Honda went to their US motorcycle dealers back in the late 1960's and asked them to change their business model to include selling cars, there were quite a few Honda MC dealers who became outspoken critics of Honda disrupting their domination of the motorcycle business in the USA by getting distracted with the car business.... Rick Case was one of the exceptions, he said "Heck yeah, if you build cars as well as you build bikes, this is gonna be a gold mine!" Rick went on to become one of the most profitable car dealers of any brand.... After the Rick Case Honda GM read this article, he called me up. I did not endorse TrueCar, but I did make Richard Bustillo a deal. I said if he would simply reevaluate the TrueCar program, than I would go to bat for him on an outstanding invoice dispute he had with TrueCar from back in early 2011 when RCH was still on the TrueCar/Zag program. Well... TrueCar made right by the dealer on the invoicing issue and Rick Case Honda went back on the TrueCar program... RCH sold more new Hondas than any other Dealer in the USA in June and is running in second place YTD behind Norm Reeves Honda. Obviously, the people running Rick Case Honda know what they are doing as automotive professionals!
Comment by on October 2, 2012 at 10:28am

Very late with this, but all respect to Ralph.  Having the honor and integrity to stand up and say he was wrong.   The incredible parts of Ralph's post to me is the power of social media, the falsehood of stealing DMS data ( wow there are a lot of power players that need to stand up and say they were wrong) and in spite of the false rumors and accusations, TrueCar made changes.   So many large vendors have stolen money from dealerships by theft and deception and nobody says a word.  Invoicing for services that were not performed or charging for equipment the dealership hasn't had for 5 years, yet the so called " Dealership Advocates" said nothing. Here's what I can say for sure with all eyes and ears on TrueCar, they are most likely the best, above board, vendor out there.  

While Ralph is setting the example, kneeling in front of the altar of truth and confessing.  I have battled a few times with Grant Cardone and his brick in your face approach.  However, he was the first to say back in December that way too much time, energy and focus is being used on TrueCar.   Mr. Cardone took a beating and the truth is, he was right. 

Comment by Keith Shetterly on August 15, 2012 at 9:25am

Thanks Ralph.  I squared it away with TrueCar, who told me they did NOT feel I was spreading disinformation, which was what I wanted to make sure of for my reputation in asking you that question.  I never, ever did that.  Thanks.

Comment by Ralph Paglia on August 15, 2012 at 8:39am

Keith - What I referred to, regarding misinformation about how TrueCar generates their transaction reporting, is that several people who published scathing criticism of TrueCar in late 2011, made statements indicating that TrueCar was using the data they polled from each participating dealer's DMS to generate the "TrueCar Curve".  Those statements were false then and now... When i did my own first hand research, including emails and phone calls to companies such as DMi and other data providers, at some point the light bulb went off in my head and I realized that TrueCar gets their data for producing transactional price reporting from multiple sources, not one of them being the sales records they get from participating TrueCar dealers.

Comment by Gary Marcotte on August 15, 2012 at 7:25am

Ralph - its funny, the guys on the Council don't especially like the good PR because it encourages the skeptics to sign up and that cuts their lead volumes.  At the last meeting, the Council is asking for a more aggressive posture with customers to drive more traffic because they convert and their store processes manage the gross just fine.  I just thought it was ironic that the users are asking for more, while the skeptics and critics are out reading books that attempt to peer into a man's soul and ascribe motives and intentions to you know why I run a bar on the beach...

Comment by Ralph Paglia on August 15, 2012 at 7:18am

One more thing... I find the use of the term "Evil" offensive when applied to a disruptive or objectionable business model or something that cuts into your profit margins.  I have seen REAL Evil, and if you think TrueCar is evil, then you are naive and should probably find religion somewhere. I have met quite a few people who are essentially what TrueCar is... And i did not see any signs of "Evil", at least in any way related to how I and many others perceive the definition of the word "Evil".

Comment by Keith Shetterly on August 15, 2012 at 7:15am

Hey Ralph, thank you for that clarification, but can you also clarify #3 for me:  I have never spread misinformation about this issue, for any reason--my reputation is as important for me as yours is to you.  Because I was vocal on this issue for a while, I need to ask:  Are you referring to me at all in #3?  Because I never, ever did that, here or at DE.  Thanks.

Comment by Ralph Paglia on August 15, 2012 at 7:07am

At the risk of repeating myself... I have never changed my opinion or guidance to dealers about a product from any company in exchange for compensation. The one and only time I was ever formally "written up" in a reprimand during my time at ADP Dealer Services was for publicly criticizing one of our products (it WAS positive criticism, I swear!). Won't do it, and have personally and professionally suffered at the hands of several companies for that commitment.

The opinions I express here on ADM and several other networks are my own, they are not somebody else's and most definitely NOT the official policies or opinions of the companies that employ me or pay for my consulting services.

I have never received one penny of money for ANYTHING from TrueCar or its affiliates... However, before my love/hate relationship with Martell raises its ugly head, TrueCar has paid First Class Educators to buy an AutoCon 2012 Conference sponsorship/exhibit and fund the AutoCon Scholarship Program for 2012.  AutoCon may have been my brainchild, but there are many stakeholders in addition to my company and TrueCar's sponsorship payments are a small percentage of total revenue for the event.  Heck, I have not even been able to sell TrueCar any advertising space on ADM or dealerELITE! But after all the grief I have received for expressing my opinions, I think I will take another run at those people...

So, let me make something perfectly clear... Anyone who has ever worked with me, especially every boss and dealer I have worked for in the past 30 years will vouch for this... Tim Martell's comment below is bullshit... MY STATED OPINIONS ARE MY OWN AND NOT FOR SALE AT ANY PRICE BELOW SEVERAL MILLION DOLLARS! (C'mon, let's be real about endorsements).

I did my own research for this article and paid for plane tickets and hotel rooms to visit dealers using TrueCar.  Even my trip to TrueCar in Santa Monica was paid for by yours truly... Yeah, TrueCar offered to pick up my travel and hotel costs, but I never submitted my receipts because doing so would have compromised my integrity from my own personal perspective, not anyone else's.  This article is NOT telling dealers to sign up for TrueCar... READ THE HEADLINE! This article makes the case for a reevaluation of TrueCar, and after speaking with Gary Marcotte and others, I stand by my opinion that the changes TrueCar has made and continues to make, merit their reconsideration by dealers. 

After all is said and done, all the hyperbola around TrueCar, isn't fixing something you screw up on part of the American way? Redemption and reinvention after getting knocked down... Rebuilding a company into something better than it was before, after getting a beating in the marketplace... Sure seems like the right thing to do from my perspective.  Who here has never made a mistake? yeah, TrueCar (mostly Scott Painter) made some mistakes with public statements early on, their initial responses to criticism in places like ADM and dealerELITE, and we all hated those rediculous TV commercials last year.  But, they have owned up to their mistrakes, changed the way they operate on many more levels than I wrote above... So, why not take another look?

Comment by Stan Sher on August 14, 2012 at 7:24pm

I kept very quiet about this and just watched all the comments.  I know that I was a big player in causing the the issues with a few of my blogs.  In fact, just like Keith, Ralph, Jim Ziegler, Rob Fontano, Jerry Thibeau, and a few others I had a call with Scott Painter.  Someone reached out to me last night from this site because they admire my passion to ask me what I thought about this.  Let me just say that I am not happy with what TrueCar did and how they did it in the past.  I am happy that they had their problems that all of this happened after the big stir was created.  However, I did meet Mike Timmons and Stewart Easterby.  In fact, when Stewart came over to shake my hand he looked at my badge, you should should have seen the priceless look on his face.  He looked like he was about to go take a a dose of heartburn medicine because in a way I think he might have been stressed about it.  However, he was nice and political.  We talked for 15 minutes amongst the three of them professionally.  It was a good conversation.  I respected what they told me and we left off nicely. 

I have not had any dealers work with me in the last 6 months that are still on TrueCar so I cannot say how much better or worse the product has become.  I do believe that if Ralph was visiting them and they showed him improvements I respect his findings.  I do not think that Ralph would just be bought by them as he is a true leader in our space and he is very blunt and upfront about a lot of things.  Besides I think that TrueCar has stepped by allowing a few lucky people to go to the event with all expenses paid.  That is very nice of them.  Yes they were a threat to our industry but if they really made good changes I would say let them show us what good they can create.  Even if they did the changes just to gain love and respect, it is what it is.  They are so huge and they have so many resources that they when they were the "beast" we could not destroy.  All we did was help tame it.

On another note, I am excited about AutoCon 2012 for many reasons.  It is time that someone steps up to the plate and give Digital Dealer a run for their money.  Also, I am excited about speaking at this event and providing good content to the public.  I love my career and what I am able to do for automotive professionals.  Ralph Paglia has been a great friend to me and has supported me over the years and I in turn support him.  If it wasn't for Ralph and ADM or Chris and DealerElite, I would not have been able to grow and make a name for myself to provide the services that I provide.  I also think that Mike Timmons has been a gentleman to me and for that I do not have anything negative to say.

The bottom line is, do I like TrueCar?  Well, it is hard for me to like them because of their past.  However, I respect what they are doing by improving.  They got Gary Marcotte, previous executive CMO from AutoNation handling the dealer counsel.  Gary and I have become friends after being on vacation in Jamaica in Blue Hole for New Years almost 2 years ago.  He is a smart guy and I am sure that he is bringing good value to helping TrueCar become better.  Now, do not take this answer as a political one because I just laid all of my opinions and facts.  I am stating my true feelings here.  No one paid me or asked me for this.  This is my passion and it comes from the heart.

Comment by Ralph Paglia on August 13, 2012 at 11:18am

Gary Marcotte's comment is further evidence that my very simple recommendation that dealers reassess their opinion of whether or not TrueCar provides a valuable product and service is prudent and warranted.  The changes the company has been through merits investigation... I am certainly not suggesting that every dealer should use TrueCar, but for dealers such as Courtesy Chevrolet and Rick Case Honda, it made sense and they are reporting good results.

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