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Auto companies and dealers are trying to find new ways to reach customers as sales slow and buyers change the way they shop.

Fewer buyers ever set foot in a dealership before deciding what to buy. Slowing sales and a changing marketplace are disrupting the way dealers have always done business.

"This is a tremendous period of change for the dealers," said Isabelle Helms, vice president of research and market intelligence at Cox Automotive, an Atlanta-based industry analysis company. "This started several years back. Every year, the number of dealerships visited by car buyers declines."

The National Automobile Dealers Association reported earlier this year the total number of new-car dealerships in the U.S. fell in 2018 to 16,802, down around 50 dealerships from a year prior.

To counter that trend, Ford Motor Co. is borrowing from the playbook of Tesla, which has opened storefronts in malls in lieu of free-standing dealerships.

Under the direction of Elena Ford, chief customer experience officer, the Dearborn automaker is testing "Smart Labs" in four locations outside the United States. While local dealers typically have displayed a car or two in the halls of shopping malls, this takes it a step further.

Ford's Smart Labs — spun off an idea from a dealer in Turin, Italy — are essentially satellite storefronts for local dealerships. They function much like the showrooms made popular by Tesla, which opened a small storefront in Troy's Somerset Collection. The idea is to put the brand and the vehicles in front of people who might not have left the house that day thinking about buying a car. 

Ford plans to try the concept at an as-yet-unannounced mall in the United States, according to Rob De Filippo, Ford's director of global in-store retail experience. He said the test locations — one in Quebec City, the others in cities in Italy, Belgium and Germany — are generating hundreds of new sales leads that might have otherwise been missed.

The storefronts or stands house a few Ford vehicles. Employees can answer questions and pass leads to salespeople. Passersby are able to test-drive vehicles parked outside in some locations. Although shopping malls have been struggling, De Filippo said satellite locations could pop up in other locations.

De Filippo said lease or purchase contracts in some cases at the European Smart Labs are signed on-location. Ford is testing processes to close deals at the satellite storefronts, but they're not meant to replace dealerships.

"We're trying to ensure the long-term dealer sustainability," he said. "This is all about learning and testing new concepts. The large-dealer format is going to come under a lot of pressure. So we're looking at how do we transform retail for the future."

Benjamin Abeloos, sales and marketing manager of the AB-Automotive dealership franchise in Brussels, Belgium, said the Smart Lab that his dealership opened with Ford in a local shopping mall three months ago is promising. 

The 1,800-square-foot "store" displaying three Ford vehicles netted 200 leads in the first month, he said. Two months later, in July, it generated more than 400 leads.

While those July leads translated to around 25 actual sales, Abeloos told The Detroit News that's 25 sales the dealership wouldn't have otherwise made.

Abeloos said his team aims to turn more of those tire-kickers into actual buyers, but it's a work in progress.

"You have to find new ways to get to the customer," he said. "Being where the customers are when they have free time is one of the biggest things. No one likes to come to the dealership on the weekend."

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

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