Rethinking Retail: Saturn Dealers Woo Web Users

SAN FRANCISCO The online shopping phenomenon is forcing almost every retail marketer to reexamine and revamp its on-site offerings to lure consumers away from their computers. The problem is especially acute for the auto industry, in which three-quarters of buyers prefer to shop on the Web, per Yahoo research.

General Motors’ Saturn, which built its consumer-friendly strategy on a no-haggle pricing policy as well as picnics and factory tours at its former plant in Tennessee, is facing the problem head-on by incorporating online shopping into roomy, redesigned showrooms.

From its start in 1990, Saturn considered its showrooms to be retail stores rather than dealerships and paid sales staff with salaries, not commission. For years employees turned over the keys to new owners with a standing ovation, a ritual the company once touted in its ads. But with the advent of the Web and shifts in its audience demographics, Saturn is redefining what it means to be customer-centric, said Chris Bower, Saturn’s manager of retail strategies.

Saturn dealerships may be welcoming, “but they have not been engaging and do not get people involved the way the new showrooms will,” Bower said.

The company’s 440 showrooms are intended to be places where customers are welcome to conduct online and offline product research while the sales staff takes a backseat to the process. “Our old retail strategy was to nurture our customers, and our new strategy is to empower them and to allow them to interact with the brand as they want to,” said Bower, comparing the shopping experience to an interactive museum, where visitors learn by experimenting with displays that show the cars’ paint colors, engines, safety features and prices.

GM’s ongoing company research shows that Saturn’s target audience has shifted since 2005. “Our audience is urban, educated, open-minded and progressive,” with the majority being female, Bower said. Compared to past Saturn customers, “they are younger, with higher income and education and care more about style and the driving experience than value and pricing issues.” To appeal to that group, Saturn is putting all its interactive features in sleekly designed interiors with modern graphics and furnishings and bold use of the brand’s signature red.

Many auto brands have tried to upgrade their retail marketing efforts in order to attract car buyers who do much of their shopping online. Ford took its Ford Fusion showroom on the road late last year, offering shoppers health and fitness tips as well as test drives, said a company rep. Toyota has upgraded the interior décor of its dealerships and added play areas for children, said Sandi Kayse, Toyota national ad manager. But few, if any, offer the consumer independence that Saturn is planning.

Detroit-based Saturn will unveil its new showroom design in Danbury, Conn., later this month, and it plans to renovate existing dealerships next year.

The new showroom design includes a concierge desk where customers are greeted, centrally located computer stations so customers can conduct online research with or without a sales rep, a display of magnetic paint chips that can be applied to any floor model and a user-controlled video of the car’s inner workings, projected on an actual vehicle. Saturn worked with Dayton, Ohio-based retail design consultancy Design Forum and L&A Architects in Troy, Mich., on the space, and Saturn’s ad agency, Deutsch, helped with graphics, said a Saturn rep.

“The new showroom is an important piece of the advertising and branding of Saturn as a company that is rethinking the way things are done” in the car world, said Eric Hirshberg, CCO for Deutsch, Los Angeles. “As traditional media get more fractured, showrooms and other retail spaces are becoming even more important as expressions of a marketer’s brand.”

The dealership revamp began in February 2005, with help from innovation strategy firm Jump Associates, San Mateo, Calif. Small teams of Saturn and Jump staffers shopped for at least a half hour at 33 design-oriented retail stores in California and Michigan—Whole Foods, Apple computers, REI outdoor equipment, Lush beauty products and American Apparel among them—for inspiration and insight into cutting-edge retail experiences.

“We studied the details, but also whether the interaction at the store made them feel happy or frustrated,” said Jump’s Clynton Taylor, project lead for Saturn.

Although it initially seemed Saturn could pick up some specific ideas from the other retailers, the researchers found they had to take a closer look. “We had to decode what would work for cars. Because Apple is successful and the staff wear white T-shirts does not mean that Saturn staff should,” Taylor said.

According to Bower, it helped to think of the retail experience as theater. “We came to understand that a showroom has a cast, script and costumes,” Bower said. “We realized the importance of the way the store looked, what was said and the props. Done well, it expresses a consistent, engaging story to the shopper.”

The showroom prototype was unveiled at a dealers’ conference last year, and tours were given to almost 40 consumers who fit the target demographic. “Rather than ask what they liked, we observed them and saw what they spent time doing,” Bower said.

One key observation: the importance of children. “The comment we heard most often was ‘where will my children be?'” Bower said. “Our audience is extremely sensitive to their children’s whereabouts and that things were hygienic. The kids could not be on the floor or near the door.”

The solution? Offering portable toys that families could take with them as they went from area to area and training sales staff to clean all toys with antibacterial wipes. “Our behavior sends a clear message about the brand, as much as the cars and showroom design,” Bower said.

The shift at Saturn may become a model for incorporating the Internet into retail marketing for other GM brands. Rick Wagoner, GM chairman and CEO, said at last week’s Frankfurt Motor Show that the company intends to rethink its marketing strategy to include more Internet marketing that allows interaction with prospective customers.