Shoppers hit the mall, test drive a Fiat
Dealer opens showroom inside Indiana retail center
Photo credit: BRADFORD WERNLE PHOTOS
REENWOOD, Ind. -- The showroom for Indiana's first Fiat dealership sits next to a Johnny Rockets restaurant and across from the children's play area in the Greenwood Park Mall.
O'Brien Fiat's indoor Fiat Studio surprised passer-by Kyle Roberts of Franklin, Ind.: "I haven't really seen a car dealership in a mall before," says Roberts, who went into the store with his wife, Mandy, to look at the four Fiat 500s on display.
Would Roberts consider buying one of the cars? "My wife likes 'em," he says. "You don't really see new cars around that price range" -- $15,995, including shipping, for an entry-level Pop version.
Mandy Roberts thinks the 500 "looks neat." Neither Kyle nor Mandy Roberts had heard of Fiat before noticing the mall store.
O'Brien Fiat staff members hand the twenty-something couple brochures and get e-mail addresses as music of the British band Oasis plays over the in-store sound system. It's all part of building a customer base for a new product in a new kind of shopping environment.
O'Brien Fiat is one of just 17 Fiat dealerships open in the United States. The 130-store network is to be operating by year end.
Owner Tom Miller, 58, is happy to be on the leading edge of what he sees as an exciting opportunity.
"That was our objective, to be one of the first in Indiana and one of the first in the country," says Miller, who also is president of Tom O'Brien Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram just down the road.
Fiat wanted to have as many U.S. dealerships open by March 1 as possible, Miller says, and "we worked hard to make that happen.
"Being one of the first in the country, we were on the fast track," says Miller, who is married to Kathleen Miller, the oldest daughter of Tom O'Brien, son of the dealership group's founder.
Being one of the first U.S. Fiat dealerships to open gives Miller one of the first cracks at 500s now being built at Chrysler's factory in Toluca, Mexico. O'Brien Fiat took its initial delivery of 10 cars on March 10 and has 24 more on the way. The store opened March 1.
O'Brien Fiat spent $300,000 to set up the 2,200-square-foot showroom, which has enough space for four of the small cars along with merchandise cases containing model cars, jackets and other Fiat paraphernalia.
Miller plans to begin local TV advertising by the end of March, even though Fiat has not said when it will launch a national ad campaign.
"We're going to have to build awareness for central Indiana and the state," he says.
Miller is the third generation of an Indianapolis family that has sold Chrysler products since 1933. But selling Fiats is something new for the family. So is selling cars in a mall.
For Miller, it's a great chance to get three of his sons -- Brian, 32 ; Tim, 31; and Kevin, 27 -- in on the ground floor of something exciting: a new European brand and a new way of selling cars.
Tim's title is studio director, the equivalent of general manager. Kevin is the studio lead, the equivalent of general sales manager. Brian is general manager of Tom O'Brien Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram.
Says Tom Miller: "This mall is perfect. They have 12 million visitors a year, and it's the only mall on the south side of Indianapolis."
The 1.3-million-square-foot Greenwood Park Mall, the second-largest in greater Indianapolis, is owned by the Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group. Brian Nelson, the mall's general manager, says the mall gives the O'Brien group a chance to convert customers who might not have been thinking about buying a car.
"I saw it firsthand," Nelson says. "There was a couple standing at the entrance to the store looking at the dealership. When I passed by, I heard the husband say, 'Let's go in and take a look.' "
On March 12, the first day the store had cars to display, about 100 people visited, Tom Miller says. That's about three times the number of customers Tom O'Brien Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram sees on a typical Saturday. Tom O'Brien Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram normally sells 600 new and 500 used vehicles a year.
As of late last week, O'Brien Fiat had sold five vehicles.
Jennifer Hayman, an O'Brien Fiat sales consultant, says, "A lot of people adapted instantly" to the idea of seeing cars for sale in a mall: "A lot of people liked the car. They were excited to see it."
Shopper Mandy Roberts had a question: "If you were to buy one, where would you get it serviced?" The answer: at Tom O'Brien Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram, where a service technician has been trained to work on Fiats.
Other aspects of being in a mall also take some adjustment, such as test drives. O'Brien Fiat has two demonstrator vehicles outside the mall, one with an automatic transmission and one with a manual. Mall rules prohibit the dealership from moving cars in and out of the showroom during retail hours, and there's no parts and service department on site.
Buyers take delivery of their vehicles near a fountain outside the main mall entrance.
Miller has signed a two-year lease and eventually may move to a more conventional location.
He acknowledges that his mall store probably won't turn a profit until it has a broader lineup to sell. He expects to add a Fiat 500 cabriolet later this year, vehicles from Fiat's sporty Abarth subbrand next year and several Alfa Romeo models when Alfa resumes U.S. sales in 2012. Miller is impressed with the leadership of Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, especially compared with prior owner Cerberus Capital Management.
"If this had been a Cerberus venture, I don't think we would have done this," he says. "I think it is a risk worth taking. But it had to be a leap of faith. You have to have faith in the leadership."
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.