Dealerships evolving to prioritize brand and customer experience
In spite of the drop in visitors to bricks-and-mortar locations, auto vendors are turning their sales floors into a setting that is more club-like
Although dealership visits are at an all-time low, automotive brands have recently invested in some of the largest and most advanced automotive retail locations the country has ever seen.
According to consulting firm McKinsey and Co., the average number of customer visits to dealerships before buying a car has dropped in recent years from five to just one or two, depending on the brand and location. In fact, a study published last summer by San Francisco-based think tank RethinkX suggests that dealerships will disappear entirely within the decade.
In spite of the drop in visitors, however, state-of-the-art dealerships are popping up all over the country. The most recent example comes in the form of a 160,000-square-foot facility in Toronto's east end dedicated to Grand Touring Automobiles' family of ultraluxury vehicles, including Jaguar, Land Rover, Bentley, Bugatti, Aston Martin, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce.
The new complex sits on a thin slice of land on Dundas Street East between a row of red townhouses and the Don River, facing Mercedes-Benz and Lexus dealerships across a bridge.
"In the past, you had to come into the dealership to get information, the source of knowledge was in these four walls, but that information is now available online," said Paul Cummings, the dealer principal and chief executive of Grand Touring Automobiles Group of Cos., from his new office at 777 Dundas St. E.
The new facility, Cummings explains, is the manifestation of a number of major trends taking place in the automobile-buying landscape. Once a high-pressure sales floor dotted with the latest models typically surrounded by a seemingly endless sea of used cars in an open lot, today's dealerships serve an entirely different purpose for an entirely different customer.
"Customers come in with so much information, we're really just filling the gaps," Cummings said. "What we're doing is creating a comfortable environment that is more club than sales; are they thinking of being part of the Jaguar/Land Rover club?"
As a result, the new Grand Touring complex is intended to be part luxury clubhouse, part Four Seasons Hotel and part Apple Store, Cummings explains. Like a luxury hotel, the multilevel dealership was designed in such a way that requires all customers to enter through the same door, where they are greeted by concierge staff.
"It was a whole mindset change – from trying to sell to customers to welcoming them into our home, taking care of them and letting them make up their mind if they want to do business with us," Cummings said, adding that the change inspired a staff-training partnership with Four Seasons. "To know the product is one thing, but to train to also know how to handle the customer is equally as important."
Upon arrival at the new facility, customers are directed to an open-concept reception area where they can enjoy complimentary refreshments and WiFi, meet with sales staff or watch through a glass window as their car is worked on in the garage below. Even used cars are sold in a modern indoor complex next door: no trudging through snowy lots required.
Cummings adds that the dealership also takes a page out of the Apple Store playbook, which seeks to provide a seamless transition from online to in-person shopping, as well as a convenient and comfortable location for servicing.
"In the auto retail business, you sell a person one vehicle, but over the next five years they're going to be in your store 20 times for servicing and maintenance, so you get one shot to sell them the car but you've got 20 times to build an experience," explained Charles Seguin, the president of Seguin Advisory Services, an automotive retail consulting firm. "If you think of it as a five-year relationship rather than one stop, then you get a better view of what the dealership business is all about and why some of these facilities are structured how they're structured."
This approach is indicative of where all retail brands are heading, Seguin explains. No matter the product, today's consumers expect to move seamlessly between online and in-person, with both facilitating a consistent brand experience.
According to a recent study by Bain & Co., automotive customers switch between online and offline channels an average of four times before making a purchase, with 60 per cent arriving at the dealership already knowing the brand, model and price they're looking for.
"The sweet spot, in our view, is for dealers to be far more proactive in enabling the omnichannel journey, that is switching from the online to in-store experiences," said Andrew Tai, CEO of Motoinsight, an online platform for e-commerce automotive transactions. "The more seamless you can make that, the more likely that dealership is going to succeed."
The mandate of fulfilling a consistent brand experience is plainly visible at the Grand Touring dealership, where a variety of luxury brands adhere to strict, brand-specific aesthetic requirements, even within the same showroom. The pattern of the floor tiling changes, for example, between the designated Rolls-Royce space and the designated Bugatti space a few feet over.
"There is a real promise of a brand and that can't change when you show up to my dealership, it has to feel the same," Cummings said. "That's how the industry is changing, and while technology has facilitated it, really it's the customer's expectations that have changed."