GM Lightens Load At Dealerships, Helps Redesign Them

This month, two General Motors dealerships--one in Stuart, Fla., utterly destroyed by Hurricanes Francis and Jeanne in 2004, the other, in Kennesaw, Ga.--have a new look. The showrooms, both part of Carl Black Automotive Group, sell Pontiac, GMC and Buick vehicles. They also represent the fruition and retail execution of a GM distribution and product strategy launched in 2002 to bundle the three GM brands together in the same channel.

The tactic aligns with General Motors' weight-loss plan of trimming redundant models, slimming divisional portfolios, and making products within each of GM's eight brands reflect each brand's "personality." Buick, for which General Motors' has crafted a brand identity around "classic, timeless, and exquisite levels of craftsmanship," has been quietly trimming the fat for the past two years: Gone are LeSabre and Park Avenue, which have been replaced with the Lucerne; likewise the Century and Regal which were replaced by the LaCrosse. The last Buick Rendevous rolled off the line in December, and the division will sell its last Rainier SUV and Terraza minivan this summer. Buick next week will use Cipriani's 42nd St. New York bar as a pad to launch its newest vehicle.

Pontiac has done likewise, eliminating minivans and SUVs and focusing on smaller cars and crossovers meant to enunciate the brand's performance identity. GMC, already GM's truck-only brand, has actually added a crossover, the Acadia.

Debbie Frakes, Buick, Pontiac and GMC communications manager, says that while eliminating trucks and vans from Pontiac and Buick means dealers selling only those brands will have less to offer, it gives dealers in the three-brand channel a full portfolio of cars and trucks--from pickups to two-seat sport coupes--with none of the brand-erosion through redundancy that has plagued the Big Three for years.

Dealership redesign, such as those carried out by the Carl Black group in Florida and Georgia, is the second phase of the retail strategy for aligning the three brands The first is working with the dealer body to increase the number of in-channel dealers carrying all three, says Frakes. She says about 1,600 dealers are in channel so far, constituting 70% of dealers carrying any of the three brands. By year end, she says, GM expects the percentage of in-channel dealers to increase to around 80.

Within the triumvirate, she explains, Pontiac serves as the entry brand, Buick is the luxury brand, and GMC offers a full range of trucks and SUVs. "It allows us to really focus on a fewer number of products. Buick, a couple of years ago, had eight products. Now we are down to three or four products that are spot-on for what the brand should be."

General Motors hired Pavlik Design, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to develop the new dealership design language: a black, white and gray color palette, with brushed metal panels outside, light cherry wood and ceramic floor tile inside. In addition to the two just completed, 200 dealers have signed on for the dealership makeover so far, per Frakes. She says GM floats assistance plans to help dealers defray the cost of renovation.

Dealer makeover programs aren't new to GM, or to others. Since 2000, the company has run such programs for Cadillac and Hummer. Cadillac dealers in 2002 were encouraged to adopt the "Art and Science" look for the brand; it featured sharp edges, black on white, and heralded the entry of Cadillac's turnaround vehicle, the CTS. When Hummer bowed the H2 back in 2002, the company's aggressive marketing strategy included dealership makeovers. It suggested a military motif that included a Quonset hut design, and mandated that Hummer dealers have off-road test areas where drivers could romp through mud and run up steep inclines and over crevasses.

Others have done likewise in an effort to align showrooms to car brands: Ford's Mazda division launched Retail Revolution a few years ago that turns dealerships into wired cafes surrounded by cars on platforms, in "Miami Vice" colors to pitch younger buyers; and Toyota's Scion division is a dealership-within-a-dealership at Toyota retailers, where cars are surrounded by Internet kiosks and low-key sales staff take a hands-off approach, letting customers configure vehicles and price.

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