82 Years of Auto Sales: How Wares Auto thrives as an independent used car dealership

For Craig Wares of Wares Auto Sales, Inc., selling used cars was a birthright. His dad, Theron “Moose” Wares, launched the business in 1937, when he was just 19 years old. The dealership bounced around to a few different locations before settling into a former gas station building at the corner of Eighth Street and Woodmere Avenue. That was the mid-1940s. Craig was born in 1948.

In the years since, very little has changed about Wares Auto or the way the company does business. It’s still a single-family-owned business – the only single-family-owned car dealership in the area – and it’s still selling cars out of that same building. Wares bought the dealership from his father in the mid-1970s, and Wares Auto has focused in on a narrower selection of automotive brands over the past several years. Otherwise, Wares Auto Sales looks, feels, and operates much in the same way it did decades ago.

It’s not that there hasn’t been pressure to evolve. Traverse City has no shortage of automotive dealerships, most of which can offer larger inventories and broader selection. The business is also a single-store dealer, which means it belongs to a portion of the auto dealer industry that has shrunk 35 percent since 2008, per stats from the National Automobile Dealers Association. When asked how he has kept his business competitive with the big boys in town, Wares suggests that the secret to his success has been consistency.

“The dealerships all used to all be separate,” Wares said. “Traverse City had a Pontiac dealer. We had an Oldsmobile dealer. We had an American Motors dealer. We had Chevrolet dealer. We had all these individual dealerships. Now, there’s one dealership that has seven different brands. So, it’s the big box feel. We have tried to maintain the best and most personal customer experience possible. What was fun in the car business years ago is that customers had that personal experience anywhere. Today, dealers carry so much that it’s more difficult for them to offer that. But we haven’t changed much. Pretty much what I do today, we did 30 years ago.”

In fact, the biggest change to come to Wares Auto Sales in the past two decades is likely a specialization of brands. Rather than sell a little bit of everything, Wares has narrowed his on-the-lot selection to a few key automotive brands: Subaru, Honda, and Toyota are the big three. Volvo and Lexus are also high on the list. The Ford Escape is a regular seller. If a buyer is looking for a BMW or a Chevrolet, the Wares team can find it for them at auction. For the most part, though, the Wares Auto brand is concentrated around a few specific makes and models.

“We’re more picky and more careful with the vehicles we buy,” Wares said. “We hand-pick every single car. I won’t put a car on my lot that I wouldn’t sell to a member of my family. That keeps me strictly buying cars that I know will last the longest. And over the years, we have found that the brands we carry have the least amount of customer complaints.”

A lot goes into building an inventory where each car is as dependable as the next. Step one, Wares says, is sourcing the cars from the right places. Wares Auto buys most of its cars at auction, but rather than shop nearby, the business focuses most of its attention on the East Coast.

“In the Midwest, we have a lot more rust,” Wares said. “On the East Coast, they use a different product on their roads (in the winter). Our mechanics can always tell the different between East Coast cars and Midwest cars, because there’s much less corrosion underneath.”

Step two is due diligence. Wares has a policy against selling any cars on the lot that have been involved in accidents. So, if a vehicle’s Carfax report shows a collision, Wares Auto won’t buy it at auction. The scrutiny goes beyond the Carfax report to things like minor dents or odd interior smells – both of which can make or break an auction buy. Wares also has its mechanics go through a 150-point safety check on each car, to make sure it can offer the reliability that customers want. Once the car is in Traverse City, it might still need a trip to the on-site Wares Service Department for new brakes, new tires or other repairs.

The result, Wares says, is that he’s spending more upfront to build an inventory than most of his competitors are. To be competitive locally, he’s also keeping his markups (and his profit margins) lower. But he says that the business has enjoyed steady traffic and strong customer loyalty over the years, and that customer complaints are a rarity. As a result, Wares Auto has been able to subsist as a single-point, single-family-owned store.

“When you get a dealer that cares more about what they carry than how many they carry, that’s really what makes us unique,” said Lot Manager Chaise Russell. “I’ve worked and trained with other dealers, and it really is different here.”

Going forward, Wares and Russell plan to keep doing what they’ve been doing: selling quality cars and focusing on strong customer experience. Wares points to subtle differentiators – like the fact that all employees in the dealership and the service department work on salary rather than commission, or that the dealership still offers overnight, take-home test drives – as factors that help draw customers in and keep them coming back each time they buy a car.

“Our customers appreciate that we have their back and try to save them money, not cost them more,” Wares said. “Since we don’t do commission, there’s no incentive to sell you more service than you need, or to upsell you in any way. Our service department is discounted to customers. We offer unlimited free loaners. If a person has any kind of issue within the first few months, like a rattle or a fluid leak, we’re going to take care of that for them at no cost.”

These factors all add up to a unique customer experience that Russell says buyers are looking for when making the decision of which used car to buy. “To be honest, I rarely try to sell a car these days,” Russell said. “I’m just trying to sell us and the culture here. That’s what I’ve been hitting really hard lately. Back in the day, it was never ‘What are you buying?’ It was ‘Where are you buying it from?’ So I try to get back to that and say, ‘Here’s why you should buy from us.’”