Lots of Luxury : Some O.C. Dealerships Are Taking Customer Service to the Limit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 as 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 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 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, say 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 last 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 upscale shopping malls. 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.

"We are attempting to create an entirely different environment for those shopping for a car, purchasing one or getting one serviced," Jones said. "And we wanted to do something outside the norm."

While arguably the plushest dealership in Southern California, Fletcher Jones Motorcars isn't the only one pulling out the stops to attract customers.

From the new Peyton Craemer Ford dealership under construction in Redondo Beach to the South Coast Motorcars "auto spa" in Mission Viejo being developed by Jaguar Cars and Aston Martin Lagonda of North America and scheduled to open late next year, dealers are focusing on customer comfort and service features like never before.

Common features include open, airy sales offices; waiting-room workstations; play areas for customers' children; and expanded service reception areas so people don't have to queue up in their cars waiting for service advisors.

The new Jaguar-Aston Martin dealership will have a theatrically lighted "presentation" room so buyers can see their new cars in the best possible light. A wall-sized video display will enable shoppers to customize life-size images of the cars that have piqued their interest.

Mission Viejo Imports, the nation's fifth-largest Mercedes-Benz dealer, is spending $15 million on a new facility in Laguna Niguel--it will change its name to Mission Imports when it moves next year--that will have 60 service bays so customers don't have to wait long for repairs.

House of Imports spent $3 million to rebuild its showroom and customer waiting area, replacing a small, single-story showroom and sales office complex with an airy, glass-fronted, two-story building. A new customer lounge features overstuffed arm chairs and a big-screen television for clients who prefer to wait for their cars.

And a lot of people do wait--much to the surprise of many longtime auto dealers.

"Our studies show that 50% of the customers who bring their cars in for service wait in the dealership for the work to be done," said John B.T. Campbell, owner of the Saturn franchise for Orange County and a member of the General Motors Corp. division's national dealer council. That finding prompted Saturn to pen a new design for its dealerships. Details are still secret, Campbell says, but new Saturn facilities like the dealership he's starting to build in Anaheim will have expanded play areas for children and a "warm and homey" feel.

Dick Bauer, owner of Bauer Jaguar in Anaheim, said he had never considered his waiting room amenities to be a critical factor until he started designing a new dealership in Santa Ana and polled customers on what they wanted.

"The top thing was a television in the waiting room because they were bored staring at the walls," he said. Bauer, who will be splitting the Orange County market with South Coast Motorcars next year, is spending about $5 million on his new facility. He said he is building four separate waiting areas--one for television viewers, one for readers, one for customers who want to plug in their computers and get some work done and one for customers' children to play in.

The big improvements are occurring at the high end of the business, but Bauer and others say that will change.

"We are raising the bar, and everyone who wants to remain successful will have to follow," Bauer said. "It doesn't matter whether you are selling Chevys or Rolls-Royces, your customer is making a big investment and wants to feel appreciated."

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While You're Waiting

Most car dealerships nationwide have a customer waiting area with a television. Percentage of service departments with the following amenities:

Customer waiting area: 92%

Television set: 85%

Vending machines: 79%

Rental-car arrangement: 43%

Free loaner car: 33%

Shuttle service: 21%

Cafeteria: 2%

Source: National Automobile Dealers Assn. survey

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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