Everything old is new again. Ford's been trialing a customer outreach experience called Smart Labs in Europe with promising results. Originally proposed by Ford dealers in Turin, Italy, Smart Labs put Ford products in open areas in shopping malls where the masses can interact with the brand in casual, dealer-free settings. It's much like Tesla stores, but the Smart Lab doesn't always come with a walled-in storefront; the setups in Turin and Brussels, Belgium, for example, are located entirely in the walkways between stores. After filing for the Smart Lab trademark here in February, Ford recently opened its first North American Smart Lab in Quebec City, Canada earlier this year. The Detroit News reports Ford's penciled in a U.S. location to open later this year.   

Ford knows the dealership model is is having its issues, and everyone expects those issues to grow more challenging. The automaker said prospective customers would average four visits to dealerships when purchasing a car not long ago, that figure is now down to 1.2 visits. Robert De Filippo, the company's global director of retail experience, told Forbes, "People are no longer shopping, but they're still transacting," and the goal is to "modify our retail experience. There will always be a role for dealers, but it needs to be transformed. We're looking not to end retail but to end bad retail."

Each Smart Lab effectively acts as the satellite branch of a local dealer. The locations display from two to five vehicles, offer seating areas, and contain technology information displays. By having the "shop" in the open area, mall-goers don't need to cross the "psychological barrier" of entering a store. Staffers, skewed toward young women, come from the local dealer and don't engage customers first, but make themselves available to answer questions. In some locations, more Ford vehicles are available in the parking for test drives. And in Europe, where cars can be sold in the malls, De Filippo said vehicles in the Smart Labs "are being offered at significantly reduced prices to try to entice customer interaction." 

The first weekend the Quebec City location opened, sales associates gathered 50 sales leads each day. The Smart Lab in Brussels generated 200 sales leads the first month it opened, and 400 sales leads the third month it was open, which turned into 25 sales. When Ford polled lab visitors, 63 percent called the experience "Good," 68 percent spoke to a lab staffer, and 85 percent said they'd recommend the Smart Labs to others. 

The automaker hasn't said where it will launch in the U.S., but in addition to the domestic spot and a third European venue in Saarbrucken, Germany, that opened in July, more labs are expected this year in Australia and Norway. Ford's chief customer experience officer, Elena Ford, said, "Our goal is to create an environment that reinforces trust and transparency. We’re aiming to do this in our retail outlets – as well as every touch point in our customers’ ownership journey."

As for that reference about old being new, anyone who saw the 1980 "Blues Brothers" movie might remember the car chase through the mall. One of the stores inside the mall that Jake and Elwood gratuitously demolish, and give a shout-out to, is a tiny Oldsmobile dealership.

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