Among the first people to drive away in new Fiat 500s from Fiat of Lakeside in suburban Detroit were an 88-year-old retired farmer and a 16-year-old high school girl.
"I'm still trying to get a handle on what my clientele is," says Sales Manager Rick Foley. Foley previously sold Saturns for 20 years, some of them in the same showroom the Fiat store now occupies.
Like Saturn, Fiat is trying to bring a new kind of customer to an old car company, with new ways of selling. Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealers with Fiat stores are employing Internet marketing, one-price selling and a special delivery experience that Fiat calls the "celebration."
Dealers are learning quickly to expect the unexpected. Lisa Copeland, manager of Fiat of Austin (Texas) says her customers include early adopters, Fiat fans, people who never heard of Fiat, Chrysler Corp. loyalists, Mini and Toyota Yaris shoppers and Italian-Americans.
Copeland and other dealers agree on one thing: These aren't the customers that they're used to seeing in Chrysler stores.
Says Copeland: "It's a psychographic, not a demographic. It's a lifestyle. If you were to put all those people at a cocktail party together, they wouldn't talk to each other. But this car brings them together."
It's too early to draw conclusions about Fiat's impact. Only 33 of Fiat's 130 approved dealerships were open as of last week. The brand sold just 500 cars in March. There is no national advertising, and only one model, the 500, to sell.
Says Copeland: "The easiest thing to do is revert to your old practices. I just hope we stick to it. It's going to take dealers who are committed to doing it Fiat's way, not their way."
Amanda Cushman, a sales associate at Fiat of Lakeside, says customers steer clear of haggling over price: "They're just jumping right over that. It's all about the car." The 500's base sticker is $16,000, including destination.
Carl Galeana, Cushman's boss and the owner of Fiat of Lakeside, said the Fiat process reminds him of General Motors' Saturn experience. He says Saturn customers were "the walking wounded," people who had been badly beaten up by the car-buying experience.
Galeana's Saturn experience helped him decide to jump at the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of Fiat. He had a vacant building and a bunch of employees who already knew about launching a brand.
Galeana knows it's important that Fiat keep the momentum, something Saturn lost.
"Saturn brought GM a whole different type of buyer. GM's mission was to bring that up into the organization. It's a great opportunity to bring customers in and bring them up through the ranks."