By Alysha Webb, Editor and Publisher
As consumers turn to the internet for vehicle shopping needs, dealerships are competing not just against each other for customers but also against the ease and convenience of online retail.
That has made the always-important customer experience at a dealership a crucial competitive advantage. From adding massage chairs to serving as a community center, dealerships are going to new lengths to make themselves stand out.
“The sky is the limit,” Jerry Mortier, Manager of Design Services at The Redmond Company tells Automotive Buy Sell Report.
The Redmond Company, a Wisconsin-based designer and builder of auto dealerships, has built dealerships with amenities that range from private waiting rooms, staffed bars, and massage chairs to individual TV watching stalls and putting greens. A client in Iowa is considering installing a dog wash at his dealership, says Mortier.
All dealerships, whether a mainstream or premium brand, aim to reduce the stress level that is associated with buying a car and create a no-pressure sales environment. Some dealerships are even putting in scent, says Mortier.
“When you get [the customer] in the door you want to entertain them and shape the experience,” he says.
Walking into an actual dealership after spending time online — where you can now do everything from scrolling through inventory to personalizing a vehicle to outright purchase of a vehicle — has created a “disconnect” between the actual and virtual experiences, Lisa Whalen, vice president, automotive and transportation growth consulting at Frost & Sullivan, tells Automotive Buy Sell Report.
Having to deal with salespeople has become annoying for many. In Frost & Sullivan’s Future of Retail report, 27 percent of those surveyed felt dealership sales people were “too pushy.”
“We see auto manufacturers and dealers getting into the game of lifestyle stores because they realize that traditionally the sales and service experience is not only a letdown but a hard sale experience. It is a pain point for customers,” says Whalen.
Like a resort
Lexus Escondido in southern California shows how far a dealership can go to create the right customer experience. The four-level, 300 square foot building has retail boutiques, a golf simulator and resident golf pro, a resident artist, a fine-dining restaurant, an exterior patio with fire pits and fabulous views of the nearby mountains, and meeting space for community groups, among other offerings. Oh, and a large selection of Lexus vehicles. A video on the dealership’s website labels the offerings “autojoyment.”
The dealership has become a popular meeting place for local professionals and a fashionable venue for weddings, says Rudy de La O, director of marketing and sustainability at Whitfield Associates Inc. in Dana Point, Calif, which designed the dealership.
“The views from the third floor transport you,” he says. “The grandeur of the building makes you feel like you are in a resort.”
Custom Facilities Inc. in Indianapolis designs and builds exclusively auto dealerships. Its customers have asked for movie theaters, McDonald’s restaurants with complete playgrounds, and kids’ play rooms that are visible from the waiting room and include iPads and Lego building blocks.
“In Texas, we did a high-line ladies dress shop in a Mercedes store,” Chip Walker, president of Custom Facilities, tells Automotive Buy Sell Report.
He is having conversations about how to shape customer experience with 100 percent of his clients, says Walker.
The requests are coming from small, medium, and large markets nationwide. The three important parameters are “How big is my store, how big is my market, what is the need?” says Walker.
He warns that ideas that seem great can turn out poorly. “The movie theater seemed like a good idea but the problem is do I show G-rated movies or what?” he says. “It was a disaster.”
A playground comes with issues such as liability. And any new amenity includes more maintenance in a business where the maintenance level is already high, says Walker.
One relatively safe and popular feature he sees a growing number of dealerships adding is space for community groups to hold meetings and other functions. Usage is free and dealerships provide complimentary coffee, tea, or other beverages. That builds familiarity with the business in a non-confrontational way.
“That facility is absolutely going to be on your consideration list” when you want to buy or lease a vehicle, says Walker.
Dealerships are tailoring their customer experience to attract specific customer segments such as Millennials and women. Millennials — those born after 1980 who reached adulthood in the early 2000’s — prefer more personalization and customization in their car shopping experience, says Frost & Sullivan’s Whalen. “Dealerships need to do whatever they can to attract them,” she says.
Women are another important group of car buyers that appreciate a tailored customer experience. In the U.S., women hold over 50 percent of drivers licenses, says Whalen, but the dealership experience has been especially unenjoyable for them.
“They are now demanding a pleasant dealership experience,” she says.
Having women in the sales area is important. So is having amenities such as childcare and private areas. Frost & Sullivan found that 25 percent of women age 18 to 25 said a dealership needed to have a children’s area, and 17 percent said they preferred to be serviced by a female sales person.
“Women tend to be multitaskers more than men,” says Whalen. “They are very, very busy and anything that can be done in the dealership environment that helps them save time is going to be particularly appealing to women.”