LOS ANGELES - With many of its stores still wearing the original paint from when the franchise was formed 14 years ago, Acura Division has rolled out a new exterior design for its dealerships.
The program arrives almost simultaneously with a wave of new products the company hopes will bolster sales into the volume realm of Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. It also comes at a time when Acura is trying to unify its image and move it further upscale.
'Our facilities and signs are old. We were the first Japanese luxury brand, but then everyone else redefined the look and feel (of dealerships). They showed that facilities are key,' said Jeff Conrad, American Honda assistant vice president of dealer affairs.
MATCHING THE INTERIOR
The new exterior design is part of a plan that is several years old. It started in 1998 as a way to try to get dealers to upgrade their stores to a basic level across the franchise. The program then moved into an interior design phase. The latest phase, shown to dealers last month in San Diego, is an exterior design mock-up that matches the flavor of the interior renovations, Conrad said.
'We went in phases because the profitability of the franchise wasn't there back then, nor were there sufficient products. But we also knew what was in the pipeline. We told them not to look at the bumpy road behind them but to look at the future,' Conrad said.
The new look coincides with these new products: a redesigned CL, which went on sale March 1; a car-based sport-utility coming in late summer; and a new Integra scheduled to arrive in 2001.
The new exterior look does not require substantial changes from what might already be on site, Conrad said. New signs, raised roof lines and fascia cladding are the main additions, as is a new entrance to the dealership. And the official color of Acura has changed from a racing red to a dark blue, which means all signs are out of date.
Dennis Manns, Acura assistant vice president of national sales, said the color change was necessary. Red is associated with fast food while blue is associated with elegance, he said, adding he wants the new signs up within 12 months.
PRICE TAG: HALF A MILLION
Conrad said remodeling a typical dealership exterior would cost $500,000 to $700,000. Acura has a co-op program to share the cost of the new architecture of the dealerships, as well as a financial incentive for dealers to begin within 18 months. Changing the signs is required, but the rest of the facility upgrade is not.
Three dealers contacted at random said they had signed up for the renovations.
'We need something that makes us stand up tall with the new products that have landed,' said Rob McDaniels, general manager McDaniels Acura in Columbia, S.C.
Richard Schindler, general sales manager of Goodson Acura in Dallas, agreed with Acura's idea to roll out the plan in stages.
'There are a lot of small Acura stores that can't really bite the financial bullet to do it all in one fell swoop. It's hard to spend $200,000 on an interior and then as much or more on the exterior. A small store may not make that much in a year,' Schindler said.
The exterior look was done by Design Forum of Dayton, Ohio, in the past eight months.
Conrad calls the design 'classic but dramatic, designed to give a feeling of warmth while still feeling high-tech.' There is almost as much attention paid to building lighting as signs. The Acura caliper logo will be spotlighted while the blue signature line running around the buildings will be lit from underneath the cladding.
The facilities program goes hand in hand with a plan to move some dealers in areas that have shifted demographics, to put them in more attractive locations. Acura has 258 dealerships, a number it intends to maintain. About 170 dealerships signed up for the interior design phase, 135 of which completed the interior work, Conrad said. Already, 60 dealers have asked for more information about the exterior phase in the two weeks since the national meeting.