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Saturn's Got That New Showroom Smell

Date: Jan, 2005


Author: Reena Jana

Photos: Saturn

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Saturn's Got That New Showroom Smell

With reimagined and redesigned showrooms in the works, the GM nameplate wants to give you a warm and fuzzy car-buying experience

By Reena Jana

Renovations of car dealerships are nothing new. Most automakers offer incentives to their dealers so they'll redesign showrooms to adjust to new branding themes. But GM's Saturn, which has a history of attempting to redesign the car-shopping experience, is attempting to go beyond simply sprucing up its retail environments with new furniture or car displays.

Saturn is rethinking its entire product line. By the time its 2008 lineup rolls out later this year, the company will exclusively offer car styles that are a maximum of 20 months old. And the company plans to reflect this revitalization process by rethinking how it sells its cars. It has famously enforced a "no haggle, no hassle" sales policy since 1990, and in January, 2005 it enlisted San Mateo (Calif.) innovation strategy firm Jump Associates to help update the Saturn shopping experience. Jump Associates did consumer research outside of the auto industry, ignoring competitors and instead exploring how retail environments such as Apple stores successfully lure customers.

Here's a sneak peek at computer renderings and physical mock-ups of Jump's redesign (completed in partnership with Design Forum, L&A Architects, and Smart Office Systems). The first dealership to get the full effect will be in Danbury, Conn.; its redesigned showroom opens to the public in September. According to Saturn, about half of its 432 stores have already signed up for some elements to be installed, be they backlit panels that offer car specs or even a user-controlled light show that projects a car's interior workings onto a real auto. Other new elements include a new exterior display, seen here, with a glowing sign that slowly changes color at night to attract the attention of those driving by.

A Warm Welcome

Because Saturn was aiming to break away from the traditional car dealership model, Jump Associates researched non-auto environments for inspiration. One detail that they added is this sleek welcome desk (seen here in a computer rendering). Yes, it's inspired by Apple's "Genius Bar," a communal-style help desk. But it's also influenced by the welcome desks at museums, says Udaya Patnaik, a principal at Jump Associates who oversaw the project. The idea of having a reception area—an idea already familiar with customers—is intended to make them feel comfortable in the perhaps less-familiar car retail environment. The blonde wood has an upscale, minimalist feel that conveys Saturn's subtly sophisticated image.

No-Pressure Zone

This computer rendering is a bird's-eye view of the redesigned Saturn dealerships. Notice the cars are lined up and arranged so that customers can approach them first, before running into a sales consultant, who will sit at a desk in the middle of the floor. The idea is to allow customers to get a feel for the place without being intimidated by sales pitches —unless, of course, they request one at the welcome desk. The layout of the dealership is divided into "zones," including a self-serve coffee-bar section (far left) and a "lounging area" (red chairs in center) to make customers feel at home.

Sign Me Up

This detailed computer rendering illustrates the inventive signage that Jump Associates installed near each car. The rectangular upright panels are two-sided: Facing the car is information about the vehicle, rather like an informational display near a sculpture in a museum. It features specs on the car —whether it's air conditioned, its horsepower-that would appear on a window sticker at a typical dealership. And, says Patnaik, it's written in "plain language rather than as a list" of off-putting technical terms. On the other side, the panel features elegant, artistic images. "We want [the panels] to be decorative, too. They serve two purposes, so people can connect with the brand at different levels," says Chris Bower, manager of retail strategies and customer experience at Saturn.

The Visible Car

Still in development is this display that's currently called the "virtual cutaway experience tool." The prototype seen here is an updated, high-tech riff on the "cutaway car" that Saturn began featuring in dealerships in the early to mid-1990s. The original display presented a car that was sliced open to reveal its inner workings. The virtual version, which will be available for the redesigned dealerships in coming months, projects images of a car's motor and other interior parts onto a real car. Customers use a nearby mouse to control the projections while accompanying audio describes details about the car.

Paint Chips

"We want the retail experience to be engaging and interactive," says Saturn's Bower. This rendering of the color and material information center in the redesigned dealerships allows customers to handle long metal strips painted with the available color schemes of Saturn cars. The strips are magnetic, and consumers can carry them to the display vehicles and attach them to compare colors. Or they can carry the strips outdoors to see what the paint colors look like in daylight. Also available are fabric swatches of interior materials. "Yes, car buyers can already change the colors on pictures of cars online," says Patnaik. "But we wanted to bring that fun experience into the real world-and make it better."

Where's the Dressing Room?

This mock-up for a car accessories display illustrates the influence of retail stores outside of the automotive industry. Items such as hubcaps and emergency roadside kits are presented as if they were high-end goods in an upscale boutique. There's also framed art and flowers in vases. Previously, such accessories were sold in the service department, away from the salesroom floor. Now they will be brought forward, and placed behind the reception desk. "We wanted to convey that the Saturn brand doesn’t just stop with the car," says Bower. Patnaik adds, "Accessories also suggest that people can customize the cars and make them relevant to their lives. Presenting them this way echoes Saturn's 'people-centric' view."

Drive It Off the (Indoor) Lot

This computer rendering shows the remade "vehicle reveal and delivery experience" section of the Saturn dealerships. Yes, that's a car under the sheet—sales consultants offer a "ta-da!" moment for each and every buyer, dramatically pulling away the fabric. The company is known for such theatrics; in the past, Saturn salespeople clapped and took Polaroid pictures of proud new-car owners. Saturn now will feature digital cameras and digital displays in the remade stores to take and post photos of purchasers instantly. A computer in this area allows buyers to e-mail photos to their friends as well. The glass doors of this area open, and after the ceremonial experience, consumers can drive away.




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