SHANGHAI -- For Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln luxury brand, what happens in China won't necessarily stay in China.
The brand is studying the habits of luxury shoppers here at Shanghai's luxury malls for new ideas in customer service that eventually could find their way back to U.S. Lincoln dealerships.
"In many ways, China will be a listening post for Lincoln in the United States," Jim Farley, global head of Lincoln and the automaker's top marketing executive, said in an interview at the Shanghai auto show. "Soon China will be the largest luxury market in the world."
Farley met the first group of Chinese Lincoln dealers over dinner before the auto show. Farley compares the Lincoln experience in China to what he went through when Toyota developed the Lexus and Scion brands from scratch.
"It felt like 1988 to me with Lexus," said Farley, who was a young product planner with Toyota Motor Corp. when Toyota launched its luxury brand.
Lincoln's first dealerships in China will open in 2014. "Because we're building the Chinese Lincoln business from the ground up, we can take more chances here because the dealer network is brand new," Farley said. "We can give them large trading areas. They will have large throughputs and they can make upfront investments and differentiate the service."
Farley declined to say how many dealers Lincoln will have initially in China except to say it was a "small group." Lincoln has not announced volume targets.
Ford already is busy trying to reinvent Lincoln for a new generation of U.S. luxury customers. Lincoln has been trying to improve the shopping experience at U.S. dealerships. Lincoln has contracted with Le Clefs d'Or, an organization of hotel concierges, to develop an academy to train dealers to provide the kind of luxury service consumers would experience at boutique hotels.
In the United States, Lincoln has a history -- both good and bad -- going back to 1922, with years of experience working with American consumers.