Saturn is now sort-of-different car company
Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak: "We have a unique place in the market."
With a revived product lineup, many Saturn dealers express hope that the brand will expand the import-fighter role GM assigned it more than two decades ago.
GM conceived Saturn in the mid-1980s as an experiment in making the factory and dealers true partners, says Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak. There would be unprecedented cooperation in matters ranging from vehicle design to advertising budgets and sales planning. Many of these attributes persist, Lajdziak says.
GM sought a more flexible relationship between Saturn and the UAW, with fewer work rules and job classifications at Saturn's assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. And Saturn's emphasis on strong relationships with buyers created a loyal customer base. In the 1990s, Saturn held homecomings at its Spring Hill plant, which drew thousands of owners to the birthplace of their cars.
The first Saturn stores opened in 1990. Joe Chrzanowski, Saturn's executive director of dealer network planning and investments, says the company took a "market area" approach. One dealer would operate multiple Saturn stores in a market, instead of several dealers each owning one store, he says.
That approach enabled Saturn dealers to focus on competing with other automakers, Chrzanowski says. With fewer dealers overall, each dealer had better prospects for good sales even when Saturn's product lineup was skimpy.
"We wanted to make sure the dealers would be successful," Chrzanow-ski told Automotive News. "So we gave them bigger markets."
Saturn still uses the market area model, Lajdziak adds.
Chris Lee, operations manager for Bill Gatton Automotive Group in Bristol, Tenn., endorses the model as a way to ensure consistency in customer service.
"You didn't have to be concerned that one of your (Saturn) competitors 20 miles away was doing business a different way," says Lee, whose company operates five Saturn dealerships in Tennessee and Alabama.
"Saturn has stayed true to its course."
The emphasis on product rather than deals has enabled his dealerships to keep better sales employees, Lee says.
'No haggle' selling
Another innovation that remains in place is Saturn's "no haggle/no hassle" selling strategy. Chrzanowski says Saturn dealers' policy of setting a price and sticking to it enables them to focus on product rather than dickering with customers.
Lajdziak says the policy helps assure the brand's integrity and unique identity. "If somebody bought a car yesterday, the person who walked in today would pay the same price for the same product," she says.
Dennis McCroskey, general manager of two Los Angeles area Saturn dealerships, says the policy has "allowed us to focus on the relationship with the customer and on the product. It takes all the adversarial negotiation out of the deal."
GM has applied the lessons Saturn learned in building its dealer network to working with all GM dealer bodies on issues such as product design, Chrzanowski says.
Tommy Brasher, a Chevrolet and Buick dealer in Weimar, Texas, agrees that "Saturn has come up with some interesting innovations."
"Their way of handling customers was quite different than what other GM dealers were used to," Brasher says. "That was good for all the customers and for GM dealers."
The Sky roadster, now on sale, is the first of five new vehicles Saturn plans to introduce over the next year. On deck are the Aura mid-sized sedan, Vue Greenline hybrid crossover, Outlook crossover and Sky Redline performance roadster. The new lineup will boost Saturn dealers' profitability, company executives say.
GM still looks to Saturn as its import fighter, Lajdziak says. About 63 percent of Saturn buyers say they would not have bought a GM vehicle if the brand did not exist, she adds.
"Our mission remains the same today, and that's to bring in conquest business," Lajdziak says. "We have a unique place in the market."
Dealer Brasher concedes that many Chevrolet dealers questioned the need for Saturn. "We were the biggest-volume division," he says.
"If (GM was) going to create a whole new line of small cars, a lot of Chevy dealers felt that we could have sold them in volume without having to create a whole new brand."
Some Chevrolet dealers still grumble that Saturn gets new product that otherwise would have gone to their stores. But many more, Brasher says, feel less slighted today by the Saturn brand. And they acknowledge, he adds, that Saturn's innovations have benefited all of GM.
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