YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Luxury For Your Car

O.C. Dealerships' Resort: Posh Customer Service


NEWPORT BEACH — Like a little lunch with that lube? Maybe a manicure with the 3,000-mile maintenance?

A growing number of U.S. auto dealerships are offering both. There's one in Newport Beach that has added a coffee bar, a kids' play area and even a complimentary putting green for pondering decisions such as whether to go for the red convertible or the glossy black sedan.

It's customer service taken to the limit. It's all part of the changing world of car sales, where forward thinkers are distancing themselves from the term "dealer" and all the unpleasant us-versus-them images it conjures.

Most of them still haggle and dicker from dawn to dusk, but increasingly the neighborhood car dealer wants to be thought of as a retailer who treats the customer like a valued client rather than an adversary.

As part of that effort, dealers are spending millions of dollars remaking their showrooms into customer-friendly environs.

"I used to be in the restaurant business, and I find the automobile business is pretty similar," says Larry Lewis, director of the parts and service operations at newly remodeled House of Imports in Buena Park.

"The customers come in, and it's our job to do the work and get them out again, to keep 'turning the tables' in restaurant parlance," he says. "But we want them to be happy so they keep coming back to dine with us. We don't want this visit to be their last supper."

To keep them coming back, Newport Beach Mercedes-Benz dealer Fletcher Jones Motorcars just spent a staggering $15 million on its new home--a price that doesn't include a piece of land worth at least $5 million that was donated by the city to keep the dealership from leaving town.

In designing the posh facility--the main building is sheathed in travertine marble--owner Fletcher Jones Jr. and General Manager Garth Blumenthal drew inspiration from Walt Disney Co., Nordstrom Inc., British Airways, Tiffany & Co. and the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain.

The lavishly appointed showroom and customer waiting area include a restaurant, putting green and even computer-ready desks for workaholic customers who tote their laptops everywhere.

Such luxury touches--there's even a health spa for employees--are "part of our philosophy of taking care of our fellow team members and our guests," says Blumenthal, using the approved New Age retailer's terms for employees and customers.

The reason some dealers are spending piles of cash on their facilities? Competition is stiff, and providing a pleasing shopping environment helps keep your customers from going to the dealer down the street.

Customer loyalty is especially critical for auto dealers because the new car market in the U.S. is stagnant at about 15 million sales a year and is expected to remain flat for several years to come. At the same time, many car makers are trying to reduce the size of their dealership networks. The survivors, says industry experts, will be dealers who have built strong customer support.

"It is a lot less costly to keep the customers you already have than to have to go out and get new ones," says Marie Beninati, consumer goods and retailing specialist with CSC Consulting in New York.

Nationally, about half the country's 19,000 new car dealers have substantially remodeled their facilities in the past five years, focusing on customer-accessible areas like showrooms, waiting rooms and parts departments.

In Orange County, several high-end car dealers are leading the pack with elaborate facilities that would be at home in the nearest upscale shopping mall.

Fixing up the physical plant, whether at a dry cleaner's or a car dealer's, is an important ingredient in any customer service plan, experts say.

"Even of those people who use the Internet to do their initial car shopping, 80% come into the dealership to test-drive the car they've decided to buy," said auto marketing specialist Sanford Block of Glendale-based Dohring Co. "The focus of the dealer who wants to be successful is to create a welcoming physical environment."

The new building for Fletcher Jones Motorcars, for example, uses 84,000 pounds of marble for flooring and wall covering to create an aura of luxury. A concierge greets customers and directs them to the proper part of the 9-acre lot.

In addition to its other amenities, the dealership has a small museum to display prehistoric fossils discovered on the site during construction. Consultants for Tiffany & Co. helped design a Mercedes products retail boutique in the parts department. And Enterprise Rent-A-Car has a 100-car rental fleet based at the dealership to serve customers who are leaving their own cars for service or repair work.

To handle that end of the business, Jones' 180,000-square-foot, three-story building has 72 service bays on the ground floor, a 72-car body shop and a huge, automated wholesale parts warehouse on the second floor. The top floor holds a few offices and a parking lot big enough to store several hundred cars.

Los Angeles Times Articles