Munich, Paris… Stockport: visiting Mercedes' biggest European showroom

Mercedes-Benz Stockport

Mercedes Stockport boss Martyn Webb: “Targets are the foundation of the opposite of good retailing

Plush Mercedes dealerships pop up in all sorts of locations, as we discovered on a trip to the North

Up we go to the third floor, out into the lashing rain then clamber up temporary steps held in place by scaffolding. Only now, as we stand in the shadow of a six-metre-high Three-Pointed Star – a handy indication of the scale of what we’re surveying – does the size of Mercedes-Benz’s largest and newest retailer in Europe, made up of two connected buildings, a dedicated body and paint centre and a so-called Autohaus to showcase its wares, hit home. This one dealership stretches across 10.5 acres of Stockport and is charged with spearheading a car-retailing revolution. 

Master of all he surveys is Martyn Webb, UK boss of LSH Auto’s nine Mercedes-Benz retail outlets, and the man responsible for ensuring that this £65 million venture pays off. The Hong Kong-based company owners are ambitious, operating dealerships in more than 120 cities globally, employing more than 24,000 people and selling more than 170,000 cars a year, and their grip on this project – feng shui-inspired water features and all – is evident. But it is Webb, 46, and his team who must ensure it delivers. 

“I’m not lying awake at night worrying, because we’ve done our homework, and we have a team of brilliant people in place to hit the targets we’ve set, but there’s no doubting the ambition,” says Webb, hard hat in place and high-vis vest on over his suit. 

“The truth is I’d 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 retail industry: the biggest realisations were that it is inefficient and that everyone is doing the same thing, replicating the inefficiencies. This is our answer to that: one site where we can cater for an end-to-end customer journey and everything between purchases, too.” 

Whether you own a Mercedes-Benz or a Smart, or want to buy a new or used one, the idea is that here lies the answer to whatever you might wish for. Hence the 70 new cars to look around, 100 used cars to consider, 30 service bays (six set up for one-hour servicing and open from 6.30am), massive car parking facilities and more. The difference here, says Webb, is that the scale allows them to drive down operating costs and put more focus on serving customers – even if they don’t (yet) own, or even want to buy, a car. 

“Our doors are open to everyone,” he says. “They can come and use a desk, or have a coffee or watch a movie. We even have a golf simulator and a barista on site. They don’t need to talk to anyone about a car if they don’t want to. The belief is that if they experience the brand, then they will consider it when they are in the market to buy – and there is a lot of science that supports that hypothesis, not least from Mercedes-Benz World in Brooklands. We have to build long-term relationships, offering services beyond buying a car and which build loyalty.” 

If that all sounds a bit ethereal, consider the tour Webb and his team went on before signing off on the project. They visited everywhere from car retailers in Shanghai to workspace specialists in Shoreditch and high-end hotels in Manchester in order to create the optimum conditions for workers and customers alike. In fact, he’s also recruited one of the staff he met in a hotel to lead his hospitality team (the venue includes meeting rooms and a cinema room that can be booked out), plus the barista he encountered while researching the service industry. 

“Many modern car dealership groups are great retailers,” says Webb. “But the absolute game-changer will come when we really put the customer first. You’ll have read that statement countless times before, of course, but the truth is, I believe, that for as long as we have targets to hit from the manufacturer then we’ll never truly put the customer’s needs as the undisputed priority. What you end up with is a series of compromises. Targets drive the wrong behaviours and are the foundation of the opposite of good retailing.” 

The answer, Webb believes, must come from the top down, but if the idea of Mercedes – with the factories it must keep running in order to remain sustainable – dropping targets sounds somewhere between fanciful and ridiculous, Webb counters by suggesting that the move to leasing and perhaps subscription models provides the perfect opportunity for change. 

“We have spent months studying retailing from every angle,” he says. “We are in a position where we can stick our head in the sand or we can change. If you just want to sell cars, that’s fine – but it reinforces the idea that buying a car is to be endured, not enjoyed. Take, for example, Primark, which has just opened its biggest-ever store. It’s no accident that it has put a restaurant in there, a hairdressers and more. They are bringing people into their space, and that means a visit is an experience, as opposed to one where you go in because you’ve got to.” 

All of which raises the thorny issue of the potential for this most amazing of spaces to be a white elephant, partly because there aren’t enough customers to justify its scale and partly, research suggests, because customers increasingly favour online buying over physical shopping. 

“Some will want to buy online, but digital isn’t one-dimensional,” says Webb. “Some people may never want to set foot on our premises, and we must cater to them, but some – I suspect the majority – will want to choose the car online but collect it in person. The key is to ensure we offer an experience everyone wants to be involved in. 

“We haven’t just built this place through vanity. There is science behind our instincts. We know the demographics of the area we are in, we know the ownership profiles of our customers in the area, we know the sorts of cars people in the area will want to buy. We know that we can pay off the investment in 10 years, and we expect the physical retail presence to have a significant value in a decade’s time. 

“Everything about this place is built around the long term – except perhaps the Three-Pointed Star, because someone in Asia has gone and built one that’s 6.5 metres high. If everything goes to plan I might have to address that.

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Source: Autocar

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