The fine art of car retailing; in how many ways can a cat be skinned?
Polestar, Volvo’s EV technology partner and producer of an ‘interesting’ new range of own-branded models, has decided to ‘change the face of vehicle retailing’, reports Iain Robertson, which would be fine, had several other players not devised new standards already.
In over 125 years of the motorcar, the innovations have been rushed in at various times, declaring ground-breaking opportunities and push-push marketing exercises like they have been going out of style. As a studious observer and critic of the motor industry for more than a third of its existence, I can tell you that the number of ‘uniques’ is enormous but that excitement should be tempered for industry exponents suggesting that something else ‘totally novel’ has just been launched. It hasn’t…
The traditional motor dealership model has served the industry very well. Whether in town, or in an out-of-town location, these centres have been manned by an intriguing blend of ardent enthusiasts and people who should not be left in charge of a pet hamster. In the main, they have been remunerated by way of a stipend salary, boosted by sales success related bonuses and commissions. The main problem related to commission selling tactics lies in a major tissue of lies, based on a lack of product knowledge and an inability of some individuals to listen and match features and benefits to customer needs and desires. In a recent AA survey related to relationships with dealers, 62% of respondents said they would not return to their supplying dealerships, even for recall and warranty work.
I am not saying that motor dealerships are hives of criminal activity but there are some outlets, where selling the residents’ grannies is an intrinsic element of their existence. Many motor dealership personnel are just honest people earning a crust but a percentage of them have given as bad a name to their outlets as double-glazing, or insurance salespeople. There is no denying that a change, any change, in the field of vehicle retailing is not merely long overdue but also essential, in light of changes taking place across the motor industry.
The days of public interest in the printed word, via magazines and motor-related media, have diminished significantly in recent times. Most motorcar manufacturers Public and Press Relations operatives have already been subsumed into their marketing departments. Marketing has no understanding, or respect, of a ‘free’ press. Sadly, the alternative is mass cut-and-pasting of motor industry, marketing provided editorials exercised by a mass of bloggers, vloggers, blaggers, trade press and out-of-work scribes. The traditions of motoring journalism have all but disappeared, those remaining being advertising revenue funded, where the outlet is afraid to upset the supplier/funder, for fear of losing life blood. However, the Internet is notorious for providing masses of information to people who seldom read beyond a headline…if they can either read, or be bothered to read at all.
Vehicle retailing needs a new model desperately to take the accelerated changing face of the industry into account. The advance, however slight, of the EV industry seems to highlight that fewer motorists are even interested in driving, many declaring that autonomous motoring cannot come quickly enough, to relieve them of the onus and, in some cases, terrors of driving on overcrowded public roads. Yet, the retailing innovations are slow to appear and insufficient emphasis is placed on them by industry consultants, all of which are only too happy to bill exorbitant fees for relating in increasingly confusing ‘marketing-speak’, as they have done ever since their speciality fields first developed.
During the mid-1980s, I was engaged on a task to develop the Citroen Fleet Dealer Programme. Installing a non-car person, paid on a non-commission salary basis, within a geographically select number of Citroen dealerships was certainly an innovation. Armed with a small fleet of dedicated demonstrators (both cars and light vans), the Fleet Centre Manager would present product to the small-to-medium business sector. In taking the product direct to the end-user, Citroen registrations blossomed.
During the mid-1990s, I was engaged on a task to train Nissan Business Centre staff. Not dissimilar to the Citroen programme but funded heavily by Nissan, it whisked Nissan sales to new peaks essential to support its Sunderland production facility. Yet, both of these exercises were dealership intrinsic and offered only fixed term support, both being consigned to the history annals, with scarcely a second thought.
Smart, the innovative German city car project, now owned 50:50 by Mercedes-Benz and Geely (the owner of Volvo and Polestar intriguingly), took retailing innovation to heart by creating unique ten-floor, 100-car towers for its colourful tiddlers. The glassy towers took the form of automated multi-storey car parks, which were highly visible landmarks in those locations adopting the costly philosophy. It was not a success. The premise had been launched originally (in 1933) by the Nash Motor Company in Chicago.
BMW promised a revolution, when it introduced its i-Series (i3 and i8) plug-in hybrid models from 2013. For a start, none would be sold, in a conventional sense, BMW preferring to extol the virtues of product leasing instead. It employed non-commissioned, salaried ‘geniuses’ at dealership level. They were not allowed to sell; only present, or ‘introduce’. Like the Citroen and Nissan exercises, the methodology was allowed to slide and i-Series models are now sold conventionally, alongside regular BMWs.
When Polestar declares that it has opened a technology-first, city-centre located, non-commission manned, consumer-focused outlet in Oslo (its first such ‘Polestar Space’), in reality, it is little different to the outlet marketing model practised by Infiniti, when it attempted (unsuccessfully) to change the face of motor vehicle retailing, not just in the UK. It is definitely ego-boosting for a new brand and its excited management team but it has all been done before.
The reality of new car retailing lies in the hands of intuitive, specialist businesses like Lincoln-based Forces Cars Direct (aimed at Armed Forces serving and former members) and its sister operation, Motor Source Group (aimed at public sector bodies). It relies on modern technology, with a human touch. Communications are carried out online but there is always a person to speak with for advice, for information. There are no hard-selling tactics, just full-on, multi-brand, customer-focused service. It is not just the reality but is also a signpost to the future.
Those vehicle brands not allying themselves to businesses such as this are shooting themselves in the foot. They should be promoting their wares through this type of business operation, not worthlessly and without viable direction on the Interwebnet.
Conclusion: Glass and chrome showrooms attract the eyes of magpies; magpies do not buy stuff. As more people use the Internet as their means to communicate and buy things, the traditional role of the motor dealership as a ‘sales outlet’ reduces to one of ‘service outlet’, which the specialists are happy to support, on behalf of their growing customer bases.