Ford Motor Co. will begin encouraging consolidation of its Lincoln, Volvo and Jaguar dealerships in a bid to improve customer handling.
The three brands will not put their cars side by side on showroom floors. But Lincoln, Volvo and Jaguar vehicles will reside under one roof - or, ideally in separate dealerships on a single site.
Under the plan, a top-performing dealer at one of the three franchises is likely to be offered one of the others when it becomes available in a market.
Ford's theory: Intermingling the franchise ownerships will help make all of the dealers expert in the art of luxury customer care.
The new distribution strategy follows the brands' incorporation into Ford's Premier Automotive Group.
Ford brought the management of the three franchises together last year, along with Aston Martin, as Premier Automotive Group. The automaker hired former BMW executive Wolfgang Reitzle to oversee the luxury-car unit.
Lincoln, in particular, is coming under the microscope now because executives want customer handling there to meet luxury buyers' expectations consistently. A single dealer dedicated to Lincoln, Volvo and Jaguar will know what luxury customers want and will achieve savings through operating efficiencies, said Mark Hutchins, Lincoln Mercury president.
'Our brand personalities are distinct,' Hutchins said. 'That gives us the ability to do some things on distribution. It would reinforce the strength of the luxury brands.'
Currently, Lincoln customers report inconsistent experiences in the brand's showrooms, Jim Rogers, Lincoln Mercury general marketing manager, said.
'Recent franchises like Lexus have modern franchise agreements with set standards,' Rogers said. 'Our franchise agreement doesn't have that many standards in it. It was never written that way. The result is that we end up with some dealers with beautiful facilities and a fantastic customer experience and some other dealers that are less so.'
A Strategic decision
But Lincoln will not force the consolidation, Rogers said. Ford's relations with its dealers have been chilly since the company began its Ford Retail Network consolidation strategy in 1997. At the end of last year, Ford backed off on plans to invest in and consolidate dealerships in metropolitan markets.
'Our dealers are very sensitive about these issues right now,' Rogers said. 'I wouldn't want to get anybody upset that we are forcing this. Dealers can misinterpret this. We are not going to do anything stupid.
'It is a general strategic decision. Where it makes sense, where it would work, where it would further the franchises and where Volvo, Jaguar and Lincoln all feel it is the right thing to do, then we will do it.'
Reitzle's arrival as top executive has prompted a thorough study of the group's vehicles, its brand positioning, future product plans and distribution strategy For example, Reitzle recently spent two full days examining every panel and piece of the 2000 Lincoln LS.
Reitzle wants to maintain Lincoln's positioning as a distinctly American luxury brand. But customer experiences at the dealership sometimes fall short of the premium positioning, Rogers said.
'We have a major push on the distribution side because we need the American luxury theme to permeate at the retail level,' Rogers said.