As a customer representative for a just-opened Mercedes-Benz dealership, Victor Argueta is a walking owner’s manual for the luxury vehicles. But the expert brought in by the dealership to help launch the new showroom was not an engineer, nor a mechanic.
He was a gourmet coffee specialist from Colombia.
The head of Ospina Coffee Company taught Argueta and his colleagues at Mercedes-Benz of Burlington an important skill: how to serve as baristas at the upscale coffee bar built inside the showroom.
Auto dealers in today’s luxury car market are finding it is not enough to simply sell and service expensive vehicles. Many are rolling out increasingly lavish perks — from meals to manicures to hair styling — to create a VIP-like ownership experience to cement the loyalties of buyers for many cars to come.
“We’re taking an extra step to make people comfortable,” Argueta said.
At dealer Bernie Moreno’s Mercedes-Benz of Burlington, for instance, the cafe is next to a salon where customers can get free manicures and hair styling while their cars are in the shop. If routine maintenance is not done in 45 minutes, that work is free, too.
At Hoffman Audi in East Hartford, technicians provide repair customers with a free hot breakfast sandwich from a local diner. And once a month Hoffman brings in a licensed masseuse to ease the sore muscles and tight joints of customers while their cars are getting worked over.
It is not uncommon for luxury-brand dealers to pick up cars at customers’ homes for routine maintenance, such as oil changes, and lend the customer an equivalent vehicle for the day. Other dealerships around the country have offered a fitness center, wine shop, and dog park.
“The bar keeps getting raised,” said Herb Chambers, who owns 55 dealerships in Massachusetts and Connecticut. “The cars are all the same, so everybody tries to have the best people and something extra.”
Chambers recalled introducing free car washes and vacuuming in the 1980s at his first dealership in New London, Conn., at a time when such extras were rare. Since then he has seen those niceties become standard and felt pressed to add new ones — like a cappuccino bar, shoe shine station, and children’s play area at his Lexus dealership in Sharon — to keep up with escalating benefits.
Robert O’Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automotive Dealers Association, said some of the pressure to offer deluxe amenities comes from luxury automakers who have seen more affordable brands improve their product lines in recent years.
For example, Kia and Hyundai, whose vehicles were once considered low-grade, now produce highly rated cars with many of the same features at significantly lower prices.
To maintain their edge, the dealers selling cars for top dollar have to be more creative.
At Mercedes-Benz of Burlington, that meant hosting a grand-opening gala featuring cuisine by celebrity chefs Lydia Shire and Jason Santos, and a fashion show previewing the latest Herve Leger collection at Neiman Marcus.
Parties and manicures cannot replace good service, Moreno noted. But as a supplement, he said, they can help his dealership attract and retain business.
“If we can deliver value and speed — plus the experience — and the price difference is minimal, then the client comes back for everything, which is what we want,” Moreno said. “We want them to get used to coming here for anything that has to do with their car.”
The perks successfully hooked Deborah Nahill, who on a recent Saturday brought in her 2011 E350 wagon for its 50,000-mile service. Nahill said she typically takes the car to the Mercedes dealership in Somerville, where she bought it but gave the new one in Burlington a try because it is closer to home in Andover.
“I walk in and there’s this coffee bar, and I got my nails done,” Nahill said. “It was wonderful. I will definitely take my car there for service again.”
In fact Nahill made plans for another $1,200 worth of maintenance, a pretty good return on Moreno’s investment in coffee and nail polish.
Hoffman Audi said the amenities have already boosted customer retention in the two years since opening an “ultra lounge” in the service center. Service manager Elliot Matos said 58 percent of Hoffman car buyers now return for regular maintenance, a 10-percentage point surge since the dealership outfitted its waiting area with a big-screen TV, fireplace, and plush leather sofas, not to mention the free sandwiches and massages.
“That’s a big deal,” Matos said. “And there’s a ripple effect: More people stay and wait for us to finish service because they’re comfortable, which means now I put out fewer loaner cars, and that’s a savings.”
Elsewhere, dealers are taking even more extravagant measures to draw customers back through their doors. Island Lincoln in Merritt Island, Fla., gives car buyers membership in the dealership’s Island Club, which includes a gym, movie theater, and barber shop.
And at Frank Kent Cadillac in Fort Worth, customers can sip a glass of wine while they wait to have their cars serviced.
If they like the vintage, they can purchase a bottle at the in-house wine shop or join the dealership’s wine club, which promises new selections delivered monthly — in a gleaming new Cadillac to tempt potential return shoppers, of course.