BMW has big plans for its dealership organization. Ludwig Willisch, president and CEO for BMW North America, laid out the broad plan at J.D. Power's 2014 International Automotive Roundtable in New Orleans, preceding the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) conference in the Big Easy. On deck is the company’s global plan to revamp dealerships aesthetically and in terms of sales training around digital marketing and reaching the savvy younger consumer.
The changes are needed. The company’s retail side landed at the bottom of NADA’s dealer attitude study, and has had well-publicized issues with dealership/OEM communications channels. The automaker has actually been trying to resolve the latter with a PR solution comprising a news and social media hub that gets news about what the company is doing to dealers before they read it online.
Three years ago, the automaker began working on a new approach for retail aimed at making people want to visit. “We are well into launch this year,” said Willisch. “It’s a holistic approach to retail experience introducing new concepts. Before launching, we invited a small group of dealers to visit the prototype showroom in Germany,” he said. There, dealers got to see the new facility design, virtual product demos and that “it incorporates the i3 and i8 plug-in electric cars [which go on sale this year.]”
He said the program includes advanced training and coaching for all facility employees, and that the dealer investment around the world adds up to several billion dollars. “Some dealers have completed it; one-third have signed up to do it.”
One Apple-esque element is that customers will no longer be met by sales associates, but by BMW “geniuses” meant to embody the younger focus. “It’s a pressure-free atmosphere; they are young, knowledgable and are paid a salary with no commissions. Only when a person is interested in purchase are they introduced to the salesperson. If not, there’s no sales pressure.”
He said that by year-end 2014 there will be some 500 dealerships with “geniuses” and there will be a BMW Genius smartphone app and hotline.
He also talked performance and sustainability as brand bookends with BMW M on one side and BMW i on the other. The latter (on the sustainability side) comprises two completely new vehicles: BMW i3 and BMW i8. "Some in the industry have said we are crazy and will never succeed" in producing these electric performance cars. Tesla S would arrogate against that. Arriving later this year, the i8 is the subject of a new ad. "It's not a limited-edition or concept car. It gets 94 per gallon and goes 0-60 in 4.4 seconds" says the voiceover. The car will be available by summer, while the smaller i3 will be available in May.
So far, BMW says, it has 100,000 hand-raisers for the i3. Is Willisch worried it will be in short supply this year? "That is a nice problem to have."