TOKYO - Imagine that General Motors has turned its closed Willow Run, Mich., plant into a giant GM-owned CarMax superstore.
Imagine that it has a lot stocked with 1,000 used cars of different makes. Plus a new-car section selling every GM model, a test track for shoppers to use in evaluating cars, a used-car auction, an aftermarket parts store and a playground for shoppers' kids.
Now imagine that you are a nearby Buick dealer. Your new-car sales have tanked ever since workers at the plant got pink slips, so you have been surviving on your used-car business. Wouldn't you be a little upset at a factory-owned CarMax moving into your territory?
The situation is real. But instead of GM doing it in Michigan, Nissan Motor Co. is doing it in Japan. Nissan's message to nearby dealers: Don't worry.
On Dec. 3, Nissan opened Nissan Carest Zama Co., a massive (by Japan standards) new- and used-car retailing outlet built on 17 percent of the land formerly occupied by the Zama assembly plant, which closed in 1995. Carest is 1.5 million square feet; the Zama plant was 9 million square feet.
Officially, Nissan officials said Carest was modeled on West Coast U.S. shopping malls. Unofficially, they conceded they copied CarMax.
The mimicry includes such used-car superstore touches as clearly labeled non-negotiable prices on all used cars, and a widely posted list of five promises Carest makes to its customers, including a wide selection and supportive staff.
Three Nissan dealership companies have outlets in the vicinity, including one just three blocks away. Yet Hiroshi Moriyama, Nissan executive vice president in charge of the domestic marketing and sales group, said those dealers would not be hurt disproportionately by Carest.
Carest will draw customers from such a wide area that 'it won't affect any dealers more than any others,' he said.
To be sure, Nissan is taking some steps that could help other Nissan outlets. For example, shoppers who don't find the specific used car they want at Carest will be able to tap computer kiosks at the mall to search the used-car inventories of Nissan dealers nationwide.
By including a wide variety of brands on its used-car lot, Nissan will minimize competition with Nissan dealers' used-car sales, because those tend to focus on used Nissans.
Indeed, Toyota Motor Corp. a few years ago set up a used-car lot to sell the import models its dealers took as trade-ins, rather than sell those imports on Toyota dealers' used-car lots. There's no such problem at Carest, where a recent inspection of the lot found used Jaguars, Hondas, Mitsubishis and other brands.
For now, local dealerships are taking a conciliatory or wait-and-see attitude.
Motohide Sato, a manager in the sales promotion division of Kanagawa Nissan, said the dealership company's Zama store, Nissan Prince Sagami, would aim for a 'co-existence and co-prosperity' policy toward Carest.
Easy enough for him to say. Nissan owns his company.
At independent dealership Nissan Satio Shonan Sales, Sales Promotion Manager Masaaki Shimura said, 'We expect a multiplying effect' from Carest at the Zama store, due perhaps to Carest's ability to draw shoppers from a wider territory to Zama. In addition, he noted that Nissan Sunny Shonan Sales will supply used cars to Carest.
A STIFF UPPER LIP
Salesmen on the front lines are taking a similar stiff-upper-lip view.
Three days after Carest began sales, Nobusuke Goto, a 'car life adviser' at Nissan Satio Shonan, said his store will boost its door-to-door sales and rely on its No. 1 customer-satisfaction ranking among Zama metropolitan dealers to counter Carest.
'We talk about it every day,' he said. 'By stepping up door-to-door sales, we may hit upon a user who visited Carest Zama and is wavering whether to buy or not.'
His shop won't try to compete on price, however. 'Price competition will destroy both of us,' Goto said.
Nissan is convinced Carest will succeed - so much so, in fact, that Nissan said it is looking to open similar large-scale auto malls at several dozen other locations across Japan.
Nissan aims to sell more cars more efficiently at Carest. It targets sales of 400 used cars and 50 new cars a month, with new-car sales rising to 100 a month in three years.