Auto Dealers Rebrand with New Showrooms

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — As he walks through the still-under-construction showroom of Spitzer Chevrolet, Barry Gonis points out the changes customers will see when it reopens later this fall.

Floor-to-ceiling glass panels on the front of the building, salesmen’s desks relocated off the showroom floor and a new customer lounge will be among the updates.

“At first I was kind of skeptical because you think you have something nice. Then you start looking at the new space and how it’s all set up,” the general manager says as builders look over the schematics on their lunch break.

Outside, workers in a scissor lift attach silver aluminum panels to the façade. Stacks of the panels are boxed in wooden crates just inside a wire fence with signs such as “Hard Hats Required Beyond This Point” and “Open During Construction.”

Walking back to his makeshift office in the corner of a trailer that temporarily serves as the sales department, Gonis points out that even without a showroom or proper offices, customers are still on the winning side of the arrangement.

“We have to go one step further knowing the customer might be put off a little bit,” he explains. “So we have to do everything we can to make them happy. We bring the cars up to them instead of making them walk around the lot and do little things like that that we know we have to do.”

The dealership in North Jackson is just one of the hundreds of Chevrolet stores across the country undergoing similar upgrades. When all is done, most Chevy stores will have a standardized appearance as part of General Motors’ Essential Brand Element program.

For nearly 10 years, manufacturers have been working to develop a singular style for their dealerships to ensure that anyone who drives past one knows at once that it’s where Chevrolets or Dodges or Nissans or whatever make of auto are sold.

The requirements go down to the minutiae.

The online catalog for Toyota’s Image USA II program shows how shelves should be arranged on the various displays. Ford’s Trustmark Design guide lists preferred restroom layouts. The Honda Dealership Image Program says the paint used to touch up areas after construction should be thinned no more than 10% and, when possible, come from the same can originally used because of the slight variances from batch to batch.

Each program allows some leeway, says Greenwood Chevrolet operations manager Sean Greenwood. The Chevrolet guide has different options for furniture, accent colors and lighting fixtures and, in some cases, allows waivers if a dealer provides a suitable alternative.

The $3-million renovation at Greenwood, which took seven months, began with a meeting between the dealership’s top staff and Gensler & Associates, the design company GM works with for the Essential Bran Element program. Gensler designers visit a dealership to determine what is and isn’t compliant with the standards before they meet local architects. Then the three groups, Greenwood explains, meet to review what the manufacturer wants and what the dealership is willing – and able – to do.

“Once we knew what they wanted us to do, we took a step back and thought, ‘What would it take do what we really wanted?’ and what it would cost and how we’d operate,” he says.

GM reimburses dealers for construction based on the dealership’s inventory, customer satisfaction and employee training. Honda allows renovated stores to order more cars to increase their inventory. Audi gives updated stores up to a 3.75% bonus on every car sold. Mercedes-Benz gives dealers a 1% discount on training for every vehicle added to a dealer’s inventory after renovation.

“If we didn’t do this, we don’t get to participate in some of the incentive programs, so it makes sense for us, financially, to go ahead and spend the money and participate in their programs,” Spitzer’s Gonis says.

But not all manufacturers offer incentives and reimbursements, notes Boardman Subaru owner Rob Fellman.

Earlier this year, before beginning his remodeling, Fellman acquired property that surrounds his building and converted it to additional parking space for customers and inventory. What Subaru contributed, he says, wasn’t enough to cover the entire cost of the new parking lot.

But what Fellman is excited about, he says, is the chance to expand his dealership, which sold about 1,700 cars last year, up from the roughly 600 per year when he bought the dealership in the early 2000s.

“I didn’t need anyone to tell me I needed to expand. And since I was already expanding, we decided to go along with the new style,” he says of the $4-million project that, in addition to the parking lot, added 15,000 square feet to the service department. The three-phase project also includes a two-story sales department still under construction.

Boardman Subaru was last renovated in 2007, the owner says, in order to expand the store. Along with that came a custom design intended to evoke the Southwest, with a beige exterior and rock accents.

“Now, they want more of a shiny silver and blue that’s kind of like everyone else,” Fellman says.

With the new space, the showroom will hold up to eight cars and 20 salespeople, whose offices will be on the second floor. The biggest change, Fellman says, will be the technology and amenities available, including a coffee bar, healthful snacks and touchscreen information kiosks that are becoming the industry standard.

“Subaru has grown so much and is conquesting so much from other manufacturers that we don’t want to let customers down when they come to us from other manufacturers,” he says.

Across all dealerships going through the upgrades – whether they’re building new or renovating – the biggest challenges are logistical, Fellman, Gonis and Greenwood say.

Greenwood Chevrolet had the option of consolidating its new and used sales departments into a single building, but still had to make sure customers weren’t trying to get into the construction area. Salesmen took turns guiding customers unsure of where to go and set up a valet service.

At Boardman Subaru, signs have been put up to direct traffic and show customers where to park. During construction, staff has been going outside to meet customers rather than wait for them to walk in and ask for help.

And at Spitzer Chevrolet, salesmen have had to adjust to working out of a trailer and adopting new customer service techniques, such as driving cars up to customers when they want to look at a vehicle rather than wander around the lot.

“This isn’t bad. It’s 1,600 square feet with rooms and offices. But it’s still not your office. And that can be a little frustrating,” says general manager Gonis.

Some dealerships, he continues, will opt to erect a new building rather than simply remodel, allowing them to stay in place until construction is complete.

So far, the construction has had little impact on Boardman Subaru, Fellman reports. The dealership is keeping pace with last year’s monthly sales and expects to finish 2016 with figures close to last year’s record 1,796 cars sold.

“It can be stressful because business doesn’t stop and we want to grow. It will be great when it’s all done,” Fellman says. “In the meantime, we have to let people know and apologize for the inconvenience. Customers have been good about it, though.”

And, if the reaction to Greenwood Chevrolet’s new showroom is any indication, the other dealers in the area undergoing renovations can expect positive reactions. Most of the comments, Sean Greenwood says, are about the increased space – the renovations extended the length of the showroom about 130 feet and doubled the area to more than 10,000 square feet – and overall appearance.

“We have something that looks well taken care of and more inviting,” Greenwood says. “It’s something people want to come to. Everything looks nice and neat like it should.”

Pictured: Owner Rob Fellman stands in the second floor of the showroom construction project at Boardman Subaru.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.