Smart, the wholly-owned subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler, is to continue its exploration of alternative ways of selling cars - and seek closer links with Mercedes dealerships.
Today saw Smart's first UK press launch, held in Birmingham, to push the appeal of the new Smart Cabrio which went on sale at the beginning of May.
At that event Walter Scherg, Smart UK brand manager, outlined how the company was developing its sales pitch, mixing traditional points of sale with innovative new ones, supported by the internet.
Smart has five sale and service centres in the UK, two in London (Chiswick and Green Park), Manchester, Birmingham and Milton Keynes. These mix 'old-style' dealerships, like the one in Manchester, to experimental pitches like the one in Milton Keynes where the sales point is in an indoor skiiing centre with one car on display.
Another two sites have been identified in London as well as Nottingham, Leeds and Bristol, together with Scotland's first Smart outlet, in Glasgow. followed by Edinburgh.
The company is also now running a Smart roadshow, touring the country and allowing the public to drive the cars and, on board the 'Smart bus' to visit 'thesmart.co.uk' website and configure the car of their choice. Home or office based 'surfers' can purchase the car online, arranging finance and insurance at their desk. It's the company's intention to allow purchases to be made on the bus using the web in the UK, as is possible in other European countries.
Mr Scherg said: “We know from research that the Smart customer is typically single, living in the town or the city and who wants to make a statement when they purchase something – but they don't necessarily want to go to a dealership. They look to buying a car in the same way as they would a new watch or a holiday.
“Our sales strategy is about putting Smart alongside the high-value goods this customer is browsing. We want the same footfall passed our sales points that stores get in shopping malls – or we will take the car to the customer through initiatives like the roadshows.”
The web is also going to be an increasing part of Smart's business. It's website or virtual showroom, Mr Scherg said, has 1,600 users a day who each spend an average of 18 minutes on the site. Of the total UK official sales this year 35 have been completed on the website.
Soon all of Smart's car sales will be processed on the internet through thesmart.co.uk site
“We want to keep our operation as lean as possible and we realise that the website is so good for the customer that our own admin system can work behind what the customer sees. So eventually the salesperson will carry out their part of the transaction on the site too. We will also carry out stock control this way,” Mr Scherg said.
Mr Scherg ruled out the possibility of Smart cars being sold alongside Mercedes cars. He did concede there are grounds for closer ties.
"Using Mercedes dealerships would certainly make sense from the point of using the same back office for servicing and administration," he said.
Mr Scherg denied that DaimlerChrysler was about to utilise the Chrysler UK network.
"In areas where there are no official Smart centres, people have been visiting Chrysler outlets asking to drive our cars. We have supplied a number of Chrysler dealers with courtesy cars, but they are under strict instructions that if anyone inquires about buying a Smart their details should be forwarded to us."
Smart plans to sell a total of around 6,000 of its officially imported coupes and cabrios by the end of this year. 2,600 Smart cars have been supplied to customers since their official launch lasts October. And by the end of 2002 it aims for a further 10,000 sales in the UK. European sales last year exceeded 100,000 units, a total that is expected to grow by 10% in 2001. This would give Smart, Mr Scherg said, the fastest growth rate of any brand in the car market.
This will be accelerated by the launch of new Smart product, namely a roadster and sports coupe in 2003 and the following year a “four-seater”. A diesel version of the coupe should be available next year.
The cars are now only available in lefthand drive. Righthand drive production begins later this year.
The Cabrio is available in the top 'passion' spec only which means it has air-con, side airbags and Starline alloys as standard. It's powered by a three cyclinder, 600cc, 54bhp engine. The roof is controlled electronically from inside the car. The roof supports can also be stowed away in a specially designed boot compartment to further open up the car to the elements.