SARASOTA -- For anyone who has purchased a new car, one of the worst parts of the experience is that half hour or so sitting at a sales associate's desk waiting for a price to come back from the dealership manager.
But add a warm chocolate chip cookie, a movie and a massage chair to the equation, it might not matter if the negotiation went on all day.
That's what Matt Buchanan, operating partner of Sarasota Ford, is counting on. For nine months, the dealership at 707 S. Washington Blvd., has been getting a facelift in the form of a 3,300-square-foot showroom expansion and the addition of a 4,300-square-foot Quick Lane auto shop.
Included in the project is a slate of customer amenities including a movie theater, a relaxation room equipped with a water wall and vibrating chairs, and a coffee and juice bar. With the dealership coming off its best sales month since 2005, Buchanan said he thinks the $2 million-plus investment can only bring more customers to the dealership.
It's a sentiment many dealership owners in Sarasota and Manatee counties are taking to heart -- and to their contractors. Although auto sales are expected to hit $52 billion
statewide this year -- up from just $35 billion in 2008 -- it's always a good idea to make a trip to the dealership more appealing.
"One thing I learned quickly is people just in general they hate going to dealerships," said Buchanan, who has been at Sarasota Ford for four years. "They don't feel comfortable, they don't feel it's trustworthy."
Also taking on dealership renovations locally are Gettel Automotive Group at its new Hyundai dealership on State Road 64, and Firkins Mitsubishi and Bob Boost Volkswagen in Bradenton.
Ted Smith, president of the Tallahassee-based Florida Automobile Dealers Association, said the burst of dealership construction activity doesn't necessarily reflect a trend. Dealers are constantly under pressure to expand and modernize their properties from the public and from car manufacturers, he said. Now, with demand continuing to grow for new cars, he said dealers are building amenities into their dealerships to capture more buyers and a bigger share of the auto repair market.
"There's some outrageously new ways dealers are trying to please their service clientele," Smith said. "Dealers want the best and brightest facility."
That comes at a price. Dealers own their dealerships outright, thus shoulder all the costs of remodel and construction projects. Smith said that can mean a $5 million to $10 million hit for a dealership that hasn't been remodeled for some time. Often, those projects come completely at the behest of car makers, which often insist all dealerships selling their vehicles maintain a similar look.
In the case of the Gettel Automotive Group, Hyundai of Bradenton is moving from its First Street Bradenton location into a new, larger dealership under construction next to Gettel's Toyota of Lakewood. Bob Bisplinghoff, Gettel's chief operating officer, said the 33,400-square-foot building will open by the end of the year will be a more comfortable place for customers to buy and service their vehicles. The new dealership will employ about 15 percent more people than the current one, which has a staff of 40.
"It will be a much nicer facility for them to wait on their vehicles being serviced and much more room to view the inventory," Bisplinghoff said.
Now is probably a better time for dealerships to make improvements than any time in the last few years. Automobile sales are up nationwide. Edmunds.com, an auto industry research group, is estimating that November auto sales nationwide will reach 1.62 million, about 1.3 percent more than in October and 1.6 percent more than at the same time last year. Smith said dealer margins on car sales have dropped in the past few years, but these increased volumes should help cash flow.
At Sarasota Ford, Buchanan is looking to improve on November's 285-vehicle sales total and to bring more service customers into the dealership. He's hired more staff, bringing total employment at the dealership up from 100 a year ago to 125 now. And with the opening of the Quick Lane, Sarasota Ford is aiming to capture repair clientele with all makes of vehicle.
The dealership will hold a grand opening Saturday afternoon to call attention to its new amenities and look. The four-hour event starts at 3 p.m. and will include a 200-yard high-wire walk by Nik Wallenda. The 100-foot-high performance comes just a month after Wallenda did a double high-wire walk between 600-foot skyscrapers in downtown Chicago.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.