Munich, Paris… Stockport: Europe's largest car show visiting Mercedes

Mercedes-Benz Stockport

Mercedes Stockport boss Martyn Webb: "Goals are the foundation of the opposite of good retailing

Plush Mercedes car dealerships popped up in all sorts of places, as we found out on a trip north

Climb up to the third floor, it's raining, then we scramble the time steps held in place by scaffolding. Only now, as we stand in the shadow of the six-metre-high three-pointed star - a handy indication of the scope of what we're studying - the size of Mercedes-Benz is Europe's largest and newest retailer, comprised of two linked buildings, a specialized body and paint center and the so-called autohouses to showcase your product, click home. This car dealership stretches across 10,5 acres of Stockport and is tasked with spearheading the car-retailing revolution.

Master everything he surveys Martyn Webb, UK boss of nine LS auto Mercedes-Benz retail outlets, and the man in charge of making sure this £65m venture pays off. The Hong Kong-based company owns ambitious, operating dealerships in over 120 cities worldwide, employing over 24 people and selling more than 000 vehicles a year, and their grip on this project is feng shui-inspired water features and everything is present. But it's Webb, 170, and his team that have to provide.

“I don't sleep well and don't worry because we've done our homework and we've got a team of brilliant people in place to hit the targets we've set, but there's no doubt about the ambition,” says Webb, helmet in place and reflective vest over suit.

“In truth, I would rather be on the front foot, investing in change, than doing nothing,” he continues. “Before we started this project, we spent a lot of time looking at the landscape of the automotive industry: the biggest discoveries were that it is inefficient and that everyone is doing the same thing, replication is inefficient. This is our answer: one site where we can arrange end-to-end and all purchases too.”

Whether you're a Mercedes-Benz owner or a smart one, or looking to buy a new one or a used one, the idea is that this is where the answer to what you might want lies. From here, there are 70 new cars to look around, 100 used cars to look at, 30 service bays (six set up for one hour service and open from 6.30 am), massive parking lots and more. The difference here, said that scale allows them to lower operating costs and focus more on customer service - even if they won't (yet), or even want to buy a car.

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“Our doors are open to everyone,” he says. “They can come and use the desk, or have coffee or watch a movie. We even have a golf simulator and a barista on site. They don't have to tell anyone about the car if they don't want to. The belief is that if they experience a brand, then they will consider it when they're on the market to buy it - and there's a lot of science out there that supports this hypothesis, not least from the Mercedes-Benz world in Brooklands. We must build long-term relationships that offer after-sales service that builds loyalty.”

If this all sounds a bit ethereal, consider the tour Webb and his team went on before signing the draft. They have traveled everywhere from car retailers in Shanghai to working area professionals in Shoreditch and upscale hotels in Manchester in order to create the best environment for workers and customers alike. In fact, he also hired one of the staff he met at the hotel to bring his hospitality team (the hotel includes conference rooms as well as a cinema room that can be booked out), plus the baristas he encountered while exploring the field service.

“Many modern car dealership groups are big retailers,” says Webb. “But the absolute game changer comes when we really put the customer first. You'll read that statement countless times, of course, but the truth is, I believe that as long as we have goals to hit the manufacturer, then we've never really put the customer as the undisputed priority. What you end up with is a series of compromises. Goals are the driving force behind bad behavior and are the opposite of good retailing.”

The answer, Webb believes, should come from the top down, but if Mercedes' idea is to keep the factories running to stay steady on declining targets, sounds somewhere between frilly and ridiculous, Webb counters, suggesting a move to leasing and possibly subscription models provides a great opportunity for change.

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“We spent several months studying retail from every angle,” he says. “We are in a position where we can stick our heads in the sand or we can change. If you just want to sell a car, that's fine - but it reinforces the idea that buying a car is a pain in the ass. Take, for example, the birth of a toddler who has just opened his biggest-ever store. It is no coincidence that he has invested in a restaurant there, a barbershop and more. They bring people into their space and that means visiting is an experience as opposed to where you go because you have to.”

All of which raises the thorny question of what might be the most amazing White Elephant locations, partly because there aren't enough customers to justify his data and, partly, research has shown that shoppers are increasingly shopping online through physical stores.

“Some want to buy online, but Digital isn't one-dimensional,” says Webb. “Some people may not want to set foot in our territory, and we have to satisfy them, but some – I suspect most – want to choose a car on the Internet, but receive it in person. The key is to offer an experience everyone wants to be a part of.

“We didn't just build this place through vanity. There is a science behind our instincts. We know the demographics of the area where we are located, we know the property profiles of our customers in the area, we know what kind of cars people in the area want to buy. We know that an investment can pay off in 10 years and we expect a physical retail presence to be significant tenfold.

“Everything in this place is built around the long term – except perhaps for the three-pointed star, because someone in Asia left and built one that's 6,5 meters high. If everything goes according to plan, I can work it out.


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