January 26, 2015

Confession #60: Better car dealers are not made with better decor

Photo: Creative Commons/Flickr

How important is a marble floor, free coffee and some nice chairs? Or an off-road test track and consistent branding? And is any of this important for your local car dealership?

Not if the dealers are hard to get to and still difficult to deal with once you get there.

2016 Cadillac CTS-V (Photo: Cadillac)
Cadillac is in the midst of a serious product revival that has brought them critical acclaim and some stealthy new image to combat the big German luxury brands. If only sales didn't suck. The dealers are believed to be a problem, so GM is going to encourage facility upgrades mostly where Cadillac isn't the only brand being sold. And those upgrades will, according to the press release, "feature exclusive Cadillac consumer touch points, highly trained sales and service staff and luxury amenities."

Your typical premium-ness, then.

Photo: Creative Commons/Flickr
While Cadillac has considerably fewer dealers since it began culling in GM's 2009 reorganization, it roughly triple the amount of outlets competitors such as BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz have. That should put them at an advantage, if those 900 or so dealers were any good. While Cadillac apparently has 200 stand-alone retailers, the remaining 700 soon-to-be-boutiques tend to be grouped with longtime GM dealers and staffed with people more used to selling and servicing a load of less prestigious brands.

Given my experience at some Cadillac dealers back when Saab was still around, and hearing other people's experiences, I'm not at all confident a new boutique concept will change much. Interior redecoration usually isn't enough to change a culture where sales people think you're there to serve them, not the other way around.

It's been almost three decades since brands like Acura, Infiniti, Lexus and Saturn came onto the scene and started to shake up customer service and facilities to prove car buying didn't have to be a horrible process. Some of those principles have spread across the industry when it became clear people would be loyal to a brand sold by nice dealers with nice buildings and nice furniture.

Photo: Creative Commons/Flickr
But the "nice dealers" memo turned more into the "nice dealerships" mandate. And in the last 25 years or so, it's led to massive consolidations where two or more neighborhood dealerships would merge into one correctly branded megastore along a major highway, covering multiple acres. Which would make sense if car sales weren't cyclical (most recent example is Volkswagen's bitter U.S. dealer population) or if there was an infinite amount of land or no such thing as city building ordinances. And furthermore, I've been to several Acura, Lexus, Saturn, etc. dealerships where the people were nothing short of dickish. No matter how sparkling the water.

In talking to non-enthusiasts, the feeling on dealerships is that proximity still rules over actual quality. If you're not in a rural area, having to drive more than 30 miles to get to a dealer is considered a hassle, and a worry if you have to get your car towed for a warranty repair.

Short story: A friend of mine recently went to go buy out the lease on his Volvo. The dealer he got it from had closed. He avoided his local dealer because they were idiots when he went to go buy the car in the first place. So he went to the next closest one, about 50 miles away, to discover they were closing down for good right in front of him. So he drove another 20 miles away to a dealer in LA that was actually still open. An Audi starts to look tempting when you pass four of their dealerships to get to the closest Volvo showroom.

The local car dealer in downtown has long been replaced by the big-box store a ways out of town, its hokey TV ads made fun of for the last time. But clearly the culture hasn't changed. And wouldn't automakers be better served by dealers who understand the product and the customers, rather than ones who merely change their appearance on the surface?

It's great that Cadillac is finally accepting that it has a large dealer body, but it's reasonable to expect it'll lose some franchisees who are unwilling to spend thousands of dollars on an interior remodel to keep selling the few cars they do. Cadillac, however, is in the unique position to leverage the huge GM network of dealers, so owners can take their Escalade to a Chevy dealer in a pinch and get the same parts.

Seriously, how hard is it to sell a car to a person?


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  5. Hi, Zac! Yes, buying a car should be a 360-degree experience. The decors and material trivialities are great to have because they enhance the physical experience – like having a nice couch to relax on while waiting and decors that brighten the place, but the process of negotiation itself is what truly counts. Thank you for sharing this article! Cheers!

    Rhonda Burgess @ Bob Dunn Hyundai

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  7. Happened to stumble upon your blog, I really enjoyed it! I could not agree more, in regard to car dealership decor and the extent to which or not, it improves the car buying experience. Marble floors? That one was rich. Have you been to SubaruofBend.Com, its worth looking at in my opinion.

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  8. Excellent article! With so many dealerships to choose from, I tend to gravitate to the local dealerships in town. I like that they have a considerable collection of cars, less staff, and are more personable. The place has that feel like you are buying from a friend. The cars are basically the same as most dealerships, I just like that they are more hands-on.