Mazda eyes more exclusive stores and a Blue Oval-like dealer program

Mazda has seen moderate incremental sales growth - but what it really wants to do is increase the number of its exclusive dealerships.

The importer also is looking at establishing a dealership certification program along the lines of Ford's Blue Oval program.

Mazda currently has about 750 retail points, 20% of which are stand-alone stores. Stephen Odell, Madza North American Operation's vice president of marketing and sales, would like to see that stand-alone percentage rise in the next couple of years.

"We're not looking to add more dealers," Mr. Odell explains. "For 2001 and the future, it's not about adding dealers, but adding exclusivity. By 2002, we hope to have 35% to 40% of our dealers as exclusives."

He understands there is an investment involved and that he can't force dealers to put up separate Mazda buildings. "I can't push them to do it, nor would I, but I can give them a strong business case for it," he stresses.

Like it's sister division, Ford, Mazda is working on a set of standards and incentives for its dealer body. Mazda is looking for dealer input on the ground floor.

"We're working on a program with the dealer community to develop Mazda Elite, which is a program along the lines of Blue Oval," says Mr. Odell.

Mazda sales have been on the upswing in recent years. In 1999 it sold 241,000 units. In 2000 it retailed 260,000 vehicles.

"MPV has done well and Tribute will help us this year (2000) because we have a full year of Tribute," explains Mr. Odell, who adds that the company will sell close to 20,000 Millennia and 20,000 Miatas.

"Miata is our key from an image standpoint," he says. "It's our icon."

Protege is Mazda's volume seller. The company will sell between 55,000 and 60,000 units when the 2000 numbers are tallied. Mazda will sell about 40,000 B Series pickups in 2000.

Mr. Odell expects total sales to increase to about 280,000 in 2001. Dealers will have a new Millennia, a new B Series pickup and a new Miata in their stables.

Infiniti is en route to a fiscal year record of about 80,000 sales in the U.S., a gain of nearly 15% from the previous year.

That's proof of a "return to Infiniti's roots" 10 years after the Nissan luxury brand debuted, says W. Thomas Orbe Jr., Infiniti sales vice president.

Mr. Orbe, in recounting the peaks and valleys of the Infiniti Division, says that the latest upturn is "most rewarding because it follows a marketing reevaluation two and a half years ago after sales were on the soft side."

Infiniti had let its performance and high-tech message slip after its roaring launch years, and was further chagrined when plunging residual values cost Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp. a bundle in lease return losses.

Infiniti has "world-class" dealers, like Carl Sewell in Dallas and Larry Van Tuyl in Phoenix, says Mr. Orbe.

"They pointed the way toward what we needed to do," he says. "With a new I-30 as a starting point, we changed our visuals and boosted our magazine and cable advertising."

Infiniti has only 172 dealers for more than 500,000 owners in the U.S., one of only two countries it has ever been sold in (the other being Canada).

That's a high ratio of owners and annual sales per dealer, which jumps the profitability opportunity substantially for the stand-alone showrooms.

Says Mr. Orbe, "Compared to our dim days, our franchise applications are up sharply. Roger Penske took over a store in West Palm Beach, FL, and Sewell added a second one in Dallas.

"We have two open points in Boise, ID, and Santa Barbara, CA, and some well-known dealers are in the bidding. That means Infiniti is hot again as a brand to have, just like it was back in the early '90s."

In another return to Infiniti's yesteryear, the power-packed Infiniti Q45 coming for 2002 will be pumped up to 340 horsepower from 290, eclipsing the new Lexus 430 again and recreating what Mr. Orbe calls "our unsurpassed pristine flagship."

The MSRP of around $54,000 will pit the "Q" against not only arch-rival Lexus 430 but BMW "7" and Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Stung before by the leasing bust, Infiniti has managed to skim back its leasing rate to 40% by focusing more on loans through NMCC.

New buildings have been erected in Mission Viejo, CA, and Atlanta by charter dealers; Asbury Automotive has bought a chain with a prominent Infiniti store in Tampa, FL, and charter dealer John Capps, who sells every luxury franchise except Lincoln at his Plaza auto mall in Creve Coeur, MO, keeps his office above the Infiniti store and has been active on Infiniti's dealer council.