Factory should reward dealer's investment
Chevrolet's attempt to force dealer Marc Heitz to make his unique dealership in Oklahoma conform to the brand's blue-arches facilities standards is about as wrongheaded as can be.
Automakers are entitled to make sure that the franchisees who sell their products do so in dealerships that are neat, clean, up-to-date and customer friendly. It is not unreasonable for a factory to tell dealers who have been lax in maintaining their dealerships that they need to invest more.
Nor is it wrong to suggest that certain design elements be used when a dealer modernizes his store.
But that is not the case in Norman, Okla., where Marc Heitz Chevrolet has become a landmark and tourist attraction since Heitz spent $20 million to create a Chevy store modeled after outfitter Bass Pro Shops. He made the investment in 2008, when the old General Motors was lurching inevitably toward bankruptcy and before the new GM came up with its Essential Brand Elements program.
Despite the coming automotive meltdown, Heitz kept the faith by investing in his Chevrolet store, and now GM will thank him by withholding $250,000 in quarterly dealer-excellence incentives. That's wrong.
Heitz is one of the victims of GM's de facto two-tier pricing created by the carrot-and-stick Essential Brand Elements program. Other stores in which dealers have invested heavily to create unique appearances that honor their company's heritage or advance local traditions also risk losing the program's payments if they don't comply with the "voluntary" standards.
GM must remember why it is in business. If GM's goal is to sell more vehicles at a good profit while enhancing the brand and pleasing customers, Heitz represents Chevrolet better by not having a same-looking Chevy store -- just as other dealers can represent their brands above and beyond normalcy by not complying with cookie-cutter dealership standards.
Or perhaps the goal is to enforce look-alike stores, regardless of the effect on sales, profits and customer satisfaction so Chevy dealerships share an indistinguishable sameness.
National brand identity is useful for fast-food restaurants because customers visit them more frequently and often look for them while traveling. But car dealerships must deliver more than a quick bite to eat. Ironically, even McDonald's allows more flexibility with retro stores and other variations.
It's time for factory executives to rethink rigid policies that every store must look the same and that those that don't will be punished. Early American author and activist Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up the situation very well, long before automobiles were invented: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
Dealers and consumers deserve better.