Not your father's car lot: Auto dealers grab attention with livelier designs

November 5, 2007

The three-tiered floor gives a commanding view of the flick playing on the big screen.

Down the hall, other guests sit entranced behind flat-panel TVs in a spacious lounge, or check their e-mail courtesy of the building's wireless signal. Not far away, 20 kids and their parents celebrate a birthday party.

It's not a movie theater, a Hilton or a Chuck E. Cheese's: It's Burd Ford's new facility at 10320 E. Pendleton Pike.

These days, almost every new or remodeled auto dealership is sporting design features unimaginable when Lee Iacocca was pitching K-cars or when the baseball, hot dogs and apple pie sold Chevrolet Vegas in the 1970s.

Even until the last few years, many a dealership had the architectural appeal of a manufacturing plant. Inside, the service department lounge consisted of folding chairs, a fuzzy TV and a coin-operated coffee machine.

Facades of an automaker's dealership often varied in style, like they were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with an LSD addiction; brand signage was about the only common denominator.

Some modern dealers, like Burd, are trying to make their facilities a destination, but most are trying to at least conform with automakers' increasingly strict store-branding schemes so customers know what to expect when they arrive.

"[Automakers] all want their own look. It's almost like the McDonald's," said Rod DeRoy, president and founder of Indianapolis-based Custom Facilities Inc., a design and construction management firm specializing in automotive facilities. DeRoy helps dealers like Burd comply-in Ford's template, to build a big white box-and to offer something more. Custom Facilities has worked on more than 400 dealerships on the East Coast and the Midwest, including area dealers Hubler Mazda, O'Brien Toyota and Penske Honda.

Facility formula

When Don Palmer started remodeling the former Collins Lincoln Mercury store at Pike Plaza and Lafayette Road as the new home for Palmer Chrysler Jeep Dodge, he got a good deal of guidance from Chrysler-right down to the graphics, the archway entrance and size of the service department write-up area.

Joe Mittolo, of Dayton, Ohio-based architectural firm Design Forum, likens it to a "kit."

Chrysler's specificationss include the placement of product information modules in the showroom that serves as a demarcation between each automobile brand on display.

Palmer's store has wireless Internet and a "speed shop" that sells custom accessories such as wheels and exhaust systems. Chrysler's product research found that younger consumers often crave such add-ons.

"They work hard to have as much brand identity [in stores] as their vehicles," said Mittolo, who worked with Palmer. "They're trying to develop a consistency."

Lynn Kimmel, co-owner of Lockhart Automotive, got a directive from General Motors Corp. to update the facades on Lockhart's three Saturn stores in the Indianapolis area. Within the next five years or so, General Motors will require an interior upgrade. Kimmel's team has always tried to keep current its Cadillac stores.

"If you have a facility that looks tired, it's perceived [as tired]," Kimmel said. "It's kind of like if you came to work in a leisure suit. We don't want any leisure suit dealerships."

Nothing makes quite the statement as a Hummer SUV, and Lockhart's Hummer dealerships obey the requisite GM design: an arching steel roof reminiscent of a Marine Corps' Quonset hut.

Lockhart worked with a local contractor, though, to make modifications, given that the structure's mass of metal and glass presented heating and cooling issues.

The solution was much like the Hummer's macho grande image: a gigantic interior fan with the inscription: the "big ass fan," manufactured by Big Ass Fan. Co. of Lexington, Ky. What driver of a big-ass Hummer wouldn't love it?

"When I saw the design plan come in, I said, 'What?'" Kimmel recalled.

Flair for flexibility

When Custom Facilities tackled the Burd Ford project, it had to be mindful to comply with Ford's exterior style and minimum-square-foot requirements for certain departments. But beyond that, DeRoy's team helped Richard and Chris Burd offer something more.

Besides the large movie screen, wireless Internet service and glassed-in play area that allows parents to see their kids from several locations in the building, there's the birthday room.

"My wife came up with that idea," Richard Burd said.

He snickered at first-until the room proved so popular that the dealership had to limit its use to Fridays because it kept staff too busy. Burd Ford buys the pizza and cake.

"We're booked until May of next year," Rich Burd said. "I go home every night and hear my wife say, 'I told you so.'"

The Burds also discovered that grandparents attending the birthday party occasionally stroll out of the room to look at cars-not a bad way to get potential customers into the showroom.

Rich Burd said customers want automotive facilities to provide more information, be more convenient and make customers feel more at ease.

Martin Murphy, executive director of the Automobile Dealers Association of Indiana, said customers expect more comfort and convenience, in general, when visiting dealerships. At a time when Starbucks dots every corner, a dumpy customer lounge with Styrofoam cups and a Nixon-era coffee maker belching what looks like 10W-30 doesn't cut it.

Customers today also want interactivity, Burd said. The dealership plans to switch on an Internet camera system that will let customers pan, tilt and zoom to a particular car on the lot.

Just the beginning?

Central Indiana is hardly cutting-edge when it comes to dealership design, however.

DeRoy can point to a Florida dealer with a workout room and a Lexus dealership with a restaurant. Mittolo recounts some dealerships with waffle bars.

Closer to home, McGrath Lexus of Chicago has a café, art gallery and golf putting green at its 100,000-square-foot facility that can display 130 vehicles indoors.

Other dealerships are playing up environmentally friendly designs. Pat Lobb Toyota in McKinney, Texas, is the first car dealer to receive the LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Vegetable oil rather than hydraulic fluid courses through car lifts in the service department. Waste oil is burned to heat the shop.

The exterior of the building is skinned with recycled aluminum. Landscaping is watered with rainwater captured by big cisterns. Carpet is made from recycled corn.

Back to the Midwest: DeRoy's Custom Facilities is working on theaters for a couple of Bob Rohrman dealerships closer to Chicago.

Does a dealer recoup the extra money for such perks? Burd figures he will, saying the extras amounted to far less than 10 percent of the cost of his new facility.

New dealer facilities generally cost $5 million for the smallest to $10 million-sometimes $15 million for the big ones, DeRoy said.

In some cases, manufacturers will help with funding to the extent a dealer goes along with their design parameters, Murphy said.

Meanwhile, Lockhart Automotive is contemplating a mini-test track in the back at its Fishers Hummer store.

"You can't just give out balloons and hot dogs on Saturdays anymore," Murphy said.
Source: XMLAr01900.xml

Recent Articles by Chris O\'malley

Comments powered by Disqus