Dealers pamper car buyers

They hope food, Internet, music draw in customers

By R.J. King / The Detroit News

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — Forget about the bad old days when car dealerships offered customers plastic chairs, dog-eared magazines and serve-yourself coffee.

Auto dealers are spending big bucks on new and refurbished showrooms that create an inviting atmosphere and lavish potential buyers with upscale amenities.

Need an oil change or tire rotation? Don’t bother to pack a lunch if you’re going to the new Golling Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealership in Bloomfield Township. Inside, customers can order a veggie wrap at the Speedshop Cafe, buy a leather racing jacket, cruise the Internet or play on a baby grand piano.

There’s also two classic cars on display there — a 1961 Chrysler 300G convertible and a 1948 Packard Super 8 — to help instill brand loyalty and provide a contrast to today’s sleek models like the Dodge Charger.

“I had a problem with my engine coolant, so I surfed the Internet and checked my e-mails while I waited,” said Nona Byrd, a local tax preparer who was recently at Golling Chrysler Jeep Dodge for a repair on her 2003 Chrysler 300M. “Usually there’s a TV in the waiting room. I was surprised to see a computer and courtesy phone.”

Bill Golling, president of the 80,000-square-foot dealership, said he combined and closed four other nearby locations to open the automotive superstore. “The new facility gave us an opportunity to establish a new identity and streamline our operations,” said Golling, who declined to reveal the facility’s cost.

Other area dealers also are adding elaborate amenities and furnishings like vehicle test tracks or children play areas to attract customers. The National Auto Dealers Association says about 1/3 of a percent of U.S. dealers have made significant improvements to showrooms, service and waiting areas in the past two years, with a major emphasis on play stations for kids, business centers for customers and showroom upgrades.

Automakers, especially manufacturers of domestic brands, have been pushing their dealers to improve their facilities to help boost sales, said Phillip J. Cody, president of The Cody Co., a retail brokerage and consulting firm in Farmington Hills.

The auto industry is more competitive than ever and Detroit automakers are losing market share to foreign rivals. That makes the showroom experience that much more competitive.

“The automotive industry is a highly competitive industry, and if dealerships are tired-looking and poorly run, customers will vote with their feet,” Cody said. “Customers are used to being pampered by department stores and spas, and they’re looking for creature comforts across the retail board, including dealerships.”

Daniel Frost, president of the Southfield Group in Southfield, which operates four area dealerships including Detroit Hummer in Southfield, is spending close to $9 million to upgrade several dealer locations.

At Detroit Hummer, Frost plans to start work soon on an elaborate expansion. The $3.6 million project, scheduled to be completed later this year, will convert the dealership into a rugged, Quonset hut-style structure highlighted by a curved steel roof, a large glass façade and a giant “H” entrance.

A large vehicle customization area and two paint booths are planned as well.

“The aftermarket business is a big thing,” Frost said. “People want to customize their vehicles to set themselves apart and impress their friends.”

GM has been pushing the World War II-era Quonset hut design at most of its 167 Hummer dealerships. Frost attempted to build a Quonset hut-style dealership in Novi but scaled back the project in order to appease local officials who were concerned the arch design wouldn’t mesh with new stores, condominiums and other recent improvements along the city’s Grand River corridor. The brick and stone facility includes a small test track.

“When you have a great-looking building, it helps boost sales,” Frost said. “When we renovated our Southfield dealership (Southfield Chrysler Jeep) in January, our sales picked up 10 to 15 percent.

“And we’re planning a big renovation of our Telegraph Chrysler Jeep in Taylor.”

The $5.3 million expansion in Taylor, scheduled to be completed next summer, will add 20,000 square feet of space for sales activities and customer conveniences while the exterior façade will be upgraded.

“You’re looking at that ‘wow’ factor to draw people in driving by,” Frost said.

At Varsity Lincoln-Mercury in Novi, a new black marble façade and interior improvements such as tile floors, redesigned sales areas and other upgrades have helped boost sales, said Dean Silver, its general sales manager. The renovation effort cost more than $100,000, he said.

“People have definitely noticed the black marble, it’s very stunning,” Silver said. “It’s boosted sales since we finished things over the summer.”

You can reach R.J. King at (313) 222-2504 or rjking@detnews.com.

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