Like everyone, I’ve been reading a lot about the troubles at the Big Three automakers. A lot of recovery ideas have been thrown around. Higher fuel standards, new designs, fewer model lines, new management, consolidation, bankruptcy, etc.

While some of these proposed solutions could have a positive impact, I want to talk a bit about something I haven’t heard discussed much: The dealership buying experience.

In the web world there’s a lot of talk about the customer experience. Discussions about usability and profitability and success always seem to swing around and point at the overarching customer experience: How’s it feel to browse, research, and buy something on a site? How’s the experience?


I like cars. Over the past few years I’ve probably been to 15 dealerships. I’ve checked out and tested out a lot of cars: German, Japanese, British, Swedish, and American. I’ve had a lot of customer experiences to think about.

Without exception, I’d put the American car dealerships at the bottom of the customer experience pile. The dealerships have been dirtier, the desks have been messier, the decor has been older. The dealerships themselves feel like used cars. I’ve also found the sales tactics pushier and the salespeople’s interest and knowledge about the cars lacking.

Unrelated but relevant: Have you been into an Audi dealer lately? Beautiful. Modern, airy, clean, welcoming, warm, lots of natural light, light wood floors, lots of room to move around. Go into an Audi dealership sometime then walk over to the local Cadillac dealer.

In the market

Recently I was in the market for an off-road friendly truck/SUV-like vehicle. I checked out the Toyota FJ Cruiser, the Honda Ridgeline, and the Jeep Wrangler. I ended up buying the Wrangler because it was the best fit for what I wanted/needed, but let me talk about the dealership experience.

First I went to the Jeep dealer. I ended up going to two different dealers. Both dealers gave me incorrect information on engine options. Basic stuff like horsepower. When I went to sit down at the salesperson’s desks, they were generally messy, unkept, and layered with stuff, post-it notes, and torn paper. The drop ceilings were low and the lighting felt very artificial. Everything looked worn out and marginally neglected. It wasn’t a comfortable setting to do business.

The Toyota dealers was modern, busy, and clean. The salespeople were dressed similarly as if someone thought about their presentation. The interior was thoughtful and comfortable (brick paver floor, exposed wood rafters, etc). It was a welcoming well lit space. Unlike the Jeep dealer, the Toyota dealer didn’t feel cramped. The Jeep dealership packed the cars inside so you could barely browse without looking at a car. The Toyota dealer gave you room to stroll. The salespeople were only marginally better than the Jeep people, but at least their desks were clean and presentable.

I also went to two Honda dealers. Both felt youthful in the most positive sense. There was an energy there. People who were looking at cars wanted to be there looking at Hondas. And the salespeople seemed to want to sell Hondas. The sales staff was lively and eager without being pushy. Like the Toyota dealer, the showroom was open and airy with a high ceiling. A good deal of natural light streamed through large windows. I didn’t feel rushed. I still wasn’t that impressed with the actual salespeople, but they did give me correct information.

In the end I bought a used Jeep Wrangler from a Ford dealer. The salesman was nice and he went out of his way to help me with a special request, but his desk was a mess and the walls of the dealership looked like they hadn’t been cleaned or painted in a decade. The bland grey 12×12” tiles on the floor were badly worn and probably didn’t look much better when they were freshly installed. Everything just felt second rate.

This matters

Of course everyone’s experience varies. One or two dealerships doesn’t make an entire franchise, but the difference between the brands was obvious. At Toyota and Honda it felt like someone cared. I could see the thinking that went into the design. On the other hand, the Jeep and Ford dealers felt like repurposed rooms. I could have been in any office building. There was nothing memorable about it. It didn’t feel like anyone was thinking about the entrance experience, the browsing experience, the informational experience, or the actual sit-down-and-consider-buying experience.

This matters. It has a big impact — especially in a highly competitive business. The American dealerships feel old, the Japanese felt young. The American dealerships were dirty, the Japanese dealerships were clean. The American dealerships were dark and dingy, the Japanese dealerships were well lit (mostly natural light) and airy. These buying conditions matter. They matter when you shop for food, the matter when you shop for electronics, they matter when you shop for clothes, and they matter when you shop for cars.

The Big Three have a lot of work to do on their products, but they’d be wise to do a lot of work on the showrooms as well. Better products in a bad store won’t make their problems go away.