Ford to Test Retail “Smart Labs” in An Unnamed U.S. Shopping Mall

Each year, fewer people are visiting dealerships. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) has estimated that the total number of new vehicle dealerships in the U.S. dropped by 50 in 2018 to 16,802. More customers are using newer models – mostly online – to purchase vehicles. As a result, dealers are having to get more creative.

Tesla, of course, uses a combination of online sales and storefront sales locations people can visit to physically inspect the cars. The EV company for years has been engaged in legal fights with state legislatures and car dealership lobbies to be able to sell its electric cars without franchisees, and much of its business model has been crafted to bypass franchises.

At least one other automaker, however, is preparing to follow Tesla to the storefront sales option. Ford Motor Company has begun testing what it’s calling “Smart Labs” – satellite locations for dealerships — in four locations outside the U.S. (One in Quebec City, the others in cities in Italy, Belgium and Germany.)

Ford Smart Labs are small retail locations in high-traffic areas located near shopping and dining attractions. The intent is to encourage customers to engage with Ford products and employees and ask questions in a no-pressure environment, and to address changing consumer shopping and buying experiences.

Rob De Filippo, Ford’s director of global in-store retail experience, told Detroit News that Ford plans to try the concept at an as-yet-unannounced mall in the U.S. in the near future. The goal is to collect sales leads and pique the interest of casual shoppers who may not yet be in active vehicle-purchasing mode. In some cases, the program may be set up in outdoor shopping locations so people can test-drive vehicles. (Ford is aware that staking success entirely on the fate of malls, which are also seeing their fortunes decline, might be a mistake.)

“We’re trying to ensure the long-term dealer sustainability,” De Filippo told Detroit News. “This is all about learning and testing new concepts. The large-dealer format is going to come under a lot of pressure. So we’re looking at how do we transform retail for the future.”