Custom Nissans give dealership added oomph
Buyers get unique car -- and a factory warranty
When it comes to customizing cars for the individualistic consumer, there are the usual hot-rod-able models, such as the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro.
But the Nissan Altima family sedan?
Absolutely, says Eric Grubbs, CEO of Grubbs Nissan in Bedford, Texas, near Dallas. Grubbs is turning out up to a dozen repackaged new Nissan models a month through his Screamin Lizard Customs shop, which operates in conjunction with the Nissan dealership.
"We keep a Screamin Lizard version of almost every model on the lot at all times," says Grubbs, whose family has been in auto retailing for 60 years. "And they turn pretty fast.
"Customers are really looking for individualization nowadays. It seems like the more you do, the more they want. In the old days, you'd put new wheels on a car and call it customizing. That's not the case anymore."
The store's sales manager selects a vehicle out of inventory -- an Altima, a Maxima, Sentra, Juke, Titan pickup, Frontier pickup, Xterra SUV or a 370Z -- and sends it in for a custom makeover. Mike Niekamp, who doubles as Screamin Lizard manager and Grubbs parts manager, then has it refitted with front lip and rear spoiler, new wheels, different headlights and possibly new exhaust, intake and brake components.
The vehicle then goes back onto the lot with a price addendum of between $4,000 and $5,000, depending on the package.
"We think Screamin Lizard gives the Nissan store that added differentiation," Niekamp says. "When the customer walks into Grubbs and sees that Altima package that we just rolled out, or the Titan custom job that's sitting there, it's a unique vehicle they can't get anywhere else in town. That becomes part of how they think about Grubbs."
Nissan wasn't the custom shop's original focus when it opened in 2006 -- and still isn't its sole focus. Grubbs originally opened Screamin Lizard as part of his Chrysler-Jeep dealership and gained a reputation around Texas as a go-to source for outfitted Jeeps and other off-road four-wheelers.
But Grubbs lost his Chrysler-Jeep franchise when Chrysler reduced its dealer count in 2009. By then, Screamin Lizard had developed enough of an identity to survive on its own. A steady stream of owners continued bringing their vehicles into the shop for aftermarket customizing. And Jeeps still make up a big part of the custom shop's volume. But they are Jeeps that are sold new elsewhere.
The shop now customizes up to 40 vehicles a month of all makes, giving Grubbs about $50,000 a month in incremental parts and labor revenues.
But linking Screamin Lizard to the Nissan store two years ago presented an opportunity for both businesses.
For the custom shop, working through a new-car franchise meant the Grubbs Nissan name and reputation stood behind the tuner work.
"We have vehicles coming to us from five states," Grubbs says of the custom shop. "People send them to us, we customize them and ship them back.
"There are always independent custom shops everywhere you go. But having this affiliation with the Nissan store gives customers the reassurance that there's a factory warranty behind our work."
The Dallas-market Nissan store also benefits. Screamin Lizard's reputation among tuners and accessory enthusiasts spills over onto a brand that is reaching out to those consumers.
Nissan brand managers have been trying to sharpen Nissan's image for racy styling and sporty performance. As Grubbs brought Screamin Lizard under his Nissan roof, the factory was just embarking on a campaign to raise U.S. consumer awareness of Nissan's motorsports and performance line, Nismo.
Nismo model packages and performance parts are well-known in Nissan's Japanese home market, but not so much in the United States. The automaker has vowed to expand the Nismo lineup for U.S. dealers, and the past year has introduced the Juke Nismo and GT-R Nismo.
Just last month, Nissan unveiled a 2015 370Z Nismo. Other Nismo models are in the works, possibly including a Nismo version of the Sentra.
"Every time they talk about Nismo, it helps us," Niekamp says of the automaker. "Every new Nismo model they bring out increases the customer awareness of Nissan as a potential performance car.
"On top of that, the person who buys a Nismo is pretty likely to come back to us afterwards to see what else we can add to their car."
The shop tries to make every vehicle it processes different from the last. Grubbs gives his technicians creative freedom to change out tires and wheels and other components on the selected inventory, all of it without affecting the new vehicles' factory warranty.
"The key to making this successful is the people doing the work," Grubbs says. "You've got have a parts manager who likes to work outside the box and really loves cars. You've got to have a service manager who appreciates dealing with things that are different from the regular work."
Uniting Screamin Lizard with the Nissan store has also introduced Grubbs to the curious consumer world of "JDM" -- a label that means "Japanese domestic market."
JDM parts are popular among Japanese-brand enthusiasts and tuners, who often tend to be young consumers with no history of brand loyalty to the Detroit 3. Purely for styling reasons, the customers want to remove various North American-market factory parts and replace them with components that are factory-issue in Japan.
JDM rearview mirrors, gear shifts, body trim and taillights are hot commodities among Nissan vehicle owners. One of the most coveted is the body emblem for the 370Z, the sports car that Nissan sells in Japan as the Fairlady Z.
"JDM parts are difficult to get," Niekamp says. "I've got parts back-ordered for eight to 10 months right now. And they will be gone as soon as they come in."
Grubbs keeps the two brands -- Grubbs Nissan and Screamin Lizard -- separate from a marketing and business perspective. All of his customized new-inventory Nissans are branded with the Screamin Lizard logo. The custom shop is looking into constructing its own showroom, and the Nissan store operates to factory specification on dealership design and layout and operations.
But they are clearly intertwined.
Screamin Lizard's finished cars are displayed on the Nissan's store's Facebook page. The Nissan store's Web site links visitors to Screamin Lizard.
The custom shop is also independently reaching out to Nissan's consumer base. Screamin Lizard sponsors the owners club Z Club of Texas and the national 370Z forum, and it is active on the brand's online fan forums and at owner meets.
"It's a business that doesn't require a lot of advertising," Grubbs says. "You reach thousands of people around the country when you go onto the forums.
"It's really a business that thrives on word of mouth. That's where you build the business. People hear about you. They hear that you do good work. They trust you.
"And of course, the vehicles themselves," he adds. "They are rolling advertisements. People see them on the street, and they want one."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at email@example.com.