August 13, 2013

The fresh sell of luxury

Ford is teaching stale Lincoln dealerships how to appeal to the younger set.

The Associated Press

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Customers sit in the cafe area of Hines Park Lincoln, a dealership in Plymouth, Mich., that has been renovated to be more appealing to luxury buyers. The building is light and airy and has clusters of sumptuous leather seating.

The Associated Press

In one room, dealers try to identify a dozen different scents, like pine and lemon. Luxury buyers, they learn, are used to custom scents in hotels and stores and might be put off by a dealership that smells like motor oil.

In another room, dealers sit on chairs of various comfort levels and learn that customers often opt to spend more money when they're sitting in a more luxurious chair. In the hotel's restaurant, the head chef has them sample three kinds of salt to spark a discussion of the flavors they're providing in their dealerships. Instead of grilled hot dogs, their trainers gently suggest, dealers might offer a wine and cheese night. The chef recommends an aged cheddar.

Although new to Lincoln, this kind of training isn't unusual in the auto industry. At Audi, it's called Kundenbigeisterung, German for "inspiring customer delight." Jeri Ward, director of customer experience for Audi in the U.S., said her brand has been down this same road, with dealer renovations starting five or six years ago and a big push for dealerships to move upmarket when the new A8 sedan arrived in 2011.

Ford won't say what it's spending on the Lincoln training or on incentives to remodel its dealerships. But Mercedes and its dealers spent $1.6 billion over the last five years upgrading its 360 U.S. dealerships, said Harry Hynekamp, Mercedes' general manager of customer experience in the U.S.

"This work is literally never done. A box of chocolates isn't going to do it," Hynekamp said.

At Lincoln, the training has more urgency. Luxury buyers don't need to be convinced that Mercedes and Audi are luxury brands. But the Lincoln training begins with a stark warning: If you can't sell Lincolns to younger buyers, the business is at risk.


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