Where can you feed goldfish, go dancing, get cash from your checking account, get a pedicure, fill the car with gasoline, pick up concert tickets, watch a live newscast, chow down on homemade meat loaf, shop for gifts, observe a traveling exhibit of the White House in miniature and buy a car - all under one roof?
Try the Armory Center in Albany, N.Y., a Suzuki dealership-turned-supermall. The 85,000-square-foot facility is part of the Armory Automotive Family. It sits at the most heavily traveled intersection in Albany. A 25-foot-tall electronic sign beckons visitors to the mall's many attractions.
You might ask what a nail salon and a goldfish pond have to do with selling cars. Donald Metzner, 36, president of the Armory Center and Armory Automotive Family, answers: Everything.
'It all has to do with selling a car,' Metzner says of the mall, which houses 22 profit centers, some of them joint ventures and all but three operated by Armory. 'People experience the Armory Center, see our products and see the services we offer and buy a car from us.'
The nonautomotive ventures - such as automatic teller machine, video games and cafe - are a convenience to customers when their cars are in for service or as they shop for vehicles. These enterprises - particularly the restaurant, car wash, quick lube and gas station - also are becoming destinations rather than afterthoughts.
Since the Armory Center opened Nov. 28, 1998, the chain's car sales have climbed 22 percent, says Metzner. The chain sold 3,644 new and used vehicles last year and expects to beat that total by 800 this year.
The $6 million facility, home to Armory Center Suzuki, is part of a four-dealership chain founded by the Metzner family in 1918. Armory Automotive Family also has Nissan, Chrysler-Plymouth and Jeep stores.
While the Metzners believe the mall and all its profit centers are integral to their future prosperity, the well-established car sales operation, which started with a Chrysler franchise, made a supermall possible. The dealerships boast 15,000 active customers and write 250 repair orders per day. The business was started by Metzner's grandfather, Anthony; his father, Stanley, is still at the helm as chairman.
The 16-acre lot had been in the family since the 1920s and was only developed into a mall nine months ago. The real estate would have been too costly if the Metzners had to buy it today. 'If we tried to pull this off from scratch, it would be quite a different story,' says Metzner.
The Metzners already had a unique operation. Armory Automotive Family's Chrysler-Plymouth dealership was recognized in 1997 by Ripley's Believe It or Not as the world's largest indoor auto showroom, displaying 250 new vehicles.
But big showrooms are not enough to thrive in the e-commerce age. Metzner, who says he believes strongly in marketing cars on the Internet, nevertheless views the Internet as a threat to profits. 'People are going to test drive cars and then go to the Internet to find the cheapest price,' he explains. 'How do we stay profitable - if we had to - at half the gross profit per unit?'
The answer was to drive traffic to a physical location, to offer products and services that cannot be obtained online. 'You can't get gas in your car on the Internet. You can't get your car serviced on the Internet,' says Metzner.
It is too early to tell how much the nondealership enterprises will contribute to the dealership's bottom line. The Armory Center as a whole just started making money in July, says Metzner. But he anticipates the restaurants, shops, gas station, fast lube and car wash will make healthier profit margins than Armory earns on vehicles. Before long, the diversified Armory Center will be insulated from the threat of Internet-induced lower car margins.
The ancillary businesses have caused a 21 percent jump in total dollar revenues. Metzner projects revenues of $145.5 million for 1999, up from $120 million last year.
Metzner says he always wanted to produce movies. In developing the Armory Center, he believes he is not too far from his original dream. 'I am in the entertainment business,' he says.
Metzner spent $200,000 on an on-site control room that can create special effects with music, strobe lights and fog. The 35,000-square-foot ground floor of the two-story atrium, which houses the Bumpers Cafe and a display of new cars, can be cleared out to create a dance floor. Within the next month or so, a popular local restaurant, Yono's, will move to the mall, and a piano lounge and a sports bar will open.
The mall reflects a stroke of marketing genius. For example, who would think to sponsor a miniature White House exhibit in a car dealership? The Armory Center had the space. And Metzner had the business acumen to realize the exposure the exhibit could give the dealership and its ancillary profit centers. The exhibit drew about 13,600 people in three weeks.
The local NBC-affiliated TV station also agreed to set up a satellite studio on the site. It cost the Armory Center $100,000 to furnish the studio, but in exchange Armory gets a mention on every newscast.
Bumpers Cafe, run by award-winning chef Yono Purnomo and his wife, Donna, serves up varied lunch and dinner fare, from wild mushroom ravioli to 'Mom's best' meat loaf. Diners can watch through floor-to-ceiling windows as cars make their way along the car wash conveyor. The cafe is expected to reach annual revenues of $1.3 million, and the new restaurant, Yono's, is projected to have revenues of $1.2 million, says Purnomo. Bumpers seats 106 people, and at 1 p.m. on a Monday, 15 customers are waiting in line for a table.
Metzner is using his diverse business ventures to build a loyal customer base and attract new business for the Armory car dealerships. For example, the car wash averages 700 cars a day in the winter, the busiest time of year. The state-of-the-art tunnel wash has been a drawing card. About a third of the customers for the car wash are driving vehicles from competing dealerships.
The Citgo gas station and mini-mart also boost business by offering color TVs right at the pumps, running Armory Center commercials or a local news show. Some customers pump more gasoline than they originally intended because they get hooked on a news show while fueling up.
Metzner also encourages repeat business by dedicating a special pump for people who bought or leased vehicles from Armory dealerships. The pump offers a discount of 3 to 5 cents per gallon. About 40 percent of the fuel customers are Armory vehicle owners. The three-pump gas station is selling 100,000 gallons of gasoline per month, about twice the volume originally projected when Metzner signed the fuel-supply contract.
It is hard to imagine what the Armory Center will feature next, but Metzner's creative juices are flowing. He is sure to think of something.
Donna Harris is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Washington, D.C.