Designing a customer-friendly dealership can go a long way toward calming consumer fears and making car buying less intimidating.
This is particularly true for the F&I department, and many dealers are moving to create friendlier environments there, according to James Gebhardt, vice president of facility design for Miller/Zell Inc., an Atlanta design firm.
Miller/Zell wrote the dealership design formula for Saturn, Lexus and Infiniti. Other clients have included BMW of North America Inc., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors.
Miller/Zell's designs feature an open look aimed at reducing the uneasiness many people feel at being on someone else's turf.
'Make the customer feel comfortable,' Gebhardt said. He said there are many ways to do this, even in an existing building.
'A lot of tension can be removed with design,' he said. 'And it's not that expensive.'
Furniture can play a role in calming the customer. Many dealerships continue to use a small desk, with the F&I manager sitting behind the desk in a larger chair, while the customer sits in a small, uncomfortable chair. That makes customers feel as if they have been called to the principal's office, according to Miller/Zell.
The computer screen almost never is visible to the customer, which is another source of tension. Gebhardt suggests using a desk with rounded ends. All chairs should be the same size, and the F&I manager's computer screen should be visible to the customer.
The customer then can interact with the F&I manager and see what is happening on the screen.
Younger buyers might not need the same sense of privacy when discussing financial matters as older buyers, but an older buyer might want a closed door, Gebhardt said.
A glass front wall is a good compromise that preserves privacy while opening up the space visually, he said. If it is impossible to build the glass wall, he suggests using a glass door.
Using light colors, pastels, blues and greens, also helps make the customer more comfortable, he said.
By the time the customer has gotten far enough into the process to enter the F&I office, the dealership has 'already closed the sale,' Gebhardt says.
'You don't want to lose the customer out of F&I.'