BUMPER-TO-BUMPER;TRAFFIC IS HEAVY AT AUTO MALL ON BANKS OF WISCONSIN INTERSTATE

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Stuck in heavy traffic on Interstate 94 near Wisconsin's Highway 50, Ralph Mauro saw the future of automotive retailing.

Mr. Mauro, traveling between two of his eight dealership locations in Illinois and Wisconsin, was talking by car phone to a sales manager who was bemoaning a lack of showroom traffic.

But from where Mr. Mauro was sitting, two outlet malls-Lakeside Marketplace and Factory Outlet Centre-were causing a backup.

"I actually got off the expressway and drove through the outlet centers. I saw license plates from Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin," Mr. Mauro said. "There were busloads of people coming up here to shop. I said to myself, `This would be a much better location.'*"

Mr. Mauro and his brother and business partner, Gregory, bought 65 acres of property between the two malls on the outskirts of Kenosha, and spent a couple years persuading reluctant manufacturers to go along with the plan to put all the Mauro franchises together.

Mauro Auto Mall, developed at a reported cost of about $13 million, opened in mid-1992, and today there's no shortage of traffic for the 13 auto brands that share the 130,000-square-foot facility. On an average day, 60,000 cars drive past on I-94.

The mall has been "in the black since day one," said John P. Stanley, chief operating officer for the Mauro Auto Group. Last year, about 9,000 new vehicles were sold there.

"We pull from downtown Chicago [60 miles south] to downtown Milwaukee [40 miles north]," Mr. Stanley said.

The Mauro Auto Mall illustrates two automotive retail trends: the expansion of auto malls, where multiple franchises are grouped together, and the growth of mega-dealers, who sell and service several brands at one or more locations.

There are currently 160 auto malls in the U.S., about half of them operated by a single dealer, said Bob Fitzharris, senior consultant with J.D. Power & Associates, Agoura Hills, Calif. About 35% of the malls-defined as preplanned, multifranchise facilities-are in California.

Mr. Fitzharris said auto malls currently account for 10% of all new-vehicle retail sales in the U.S. His prediction: 350 auto malls by 2005, selling 35% of all vehicles in the U.S.

It's no wonder some carmakers are uneasy. The concentration of retail power in fewer hands and malls' drawing power mean manufacturers must increasingly fight for shelf space.

"An auto manufacturer doesn't necessarily want its direct competition on all sides," said Doug Dohring, chairman-CEO of the Dohring Co., a Glendale, Calif.-based retail automotive research company.

"The terror we all have is that a dealer who has control of several product lines tends to show favoritism to the hottest-selling product," said Jim Perkins, VP-general manager of General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet division.

"Then you don't necessarily have the best management in the other stores, and you don't necessarily have the best sales force in the other stores. And we're not all hot at the same time," Mr. Perkins said.

Whatever the misgivings, an automaker needs to have its products where the customers are. So Mr. Perkins' Chevrolet/Geo has a showroom at the Mauro Auto Mall, as does Ford, BMW, Volvo, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Cadillac, Mitsubishi, Jeep/Eagle and Mercedes-Benz.

Auto malls are growing because they're the way consumers want to shop, Mr. Fitzharris said.

"Today's consumers want to see great choice in a limited amount of time. They don't have time to kick tires like their fathers and grandfathers did," he explained.

Some observers liken the trend to what happened in consumer electronics, where regional chains now dominate by offering numerous brands in one location. The retailer concentrates marketing efforts on building its own image, rather than the brands that it carries.

That's the case at Mauro. "It's all in the mall" is the theme for the $1.5 million to $2 million in newspaper, cable TV and direct mail efforts created by W.R. Powers & Associates, Des Plaines, Ill.

"There's no question we're in a stronger position than most dealers," Mr. Mauro said. "If I were a single-point Ford store or Chevy store, I'd be dependent on their products and marketing. I'm less dependent on any individual manufacturer and more dependent on my own abilities to run with the opportunity we have. We market our concept."

That concept is more than just bringing 2,500 new models together on one lot. The big volume/single location formula allows economies of scale in areas such as ad spending, utility bills, management and employees.

That in turn has enabled Mr. Mauro, 38, to experiment with changing the way cars are traditionally sold in order to create a low-pressure, friendly environment.

The key element is a one-price, no-dickering policy. The dealership calculates a figure it will accept for each vehicle, and every customer gets the same price.

Mr. Stanley said the one-price policy enables the dealership to attract knowledgeable, professional "product consultants," the term Mauro uses instead of salesmen. The consultants get a strong base salary and earn commission not on gross sales but on the number of units sold.

"We have more college graduates and more women because we're not operating in a `Would you take?' atmosphere," he said.

Chevrolet/Geo product consultant Jim Silvester, 29, joined Mauro 21/2 years ago after managing several restaurants and then owning his own establishment. He explained: "Mauro looks for people with more of a customer-service background, not the typical white-belt, white-shoe guy."

Mr. Silvester said the one-price strategy provides a more relaxed atmosphere because "you're able to take a customer's mind off what price is going to be negotiated."

The one-price strategy was pioneered by GM's Saturn Corp., and it remains a keystone to Saturn's high customer-satisfaction levels. A number of dealers for other brands rushed to embrace the concept a few years ago, but some have abandoned it.

Mr. Dohring said about 10% to 15% of dealers use one-price selling, while about one-third of all customers prefer a no-haggle environment. "Most people want to feel like they're getting the best possible price and are willing to negotiate to get it," he said.

One problem for one-price dealers is that some customers use their figure as a bargaining point to take to other dealers.

Mauro tries to counteract that somewhat by not posting the asking price on the car's sticker. That means a shopper at least has to talk to a salesman to get a price quote.

"At times it's difficult to stay committed to [one-price selling]," Mr. Mauro said.

"We've lost a few deals, but I'm glad we have stayed with it," he said. "I believe it's a much more customer-friendly approach to selling an automobile, and I think it is the way of the future."

The Mauro Auto Mall boasts other customer-friendly lures, from a 30-day price guarantee to a supervised playroom for kids and a boutique selling automotive specialty items.

A customer who brings a car in for service can catch a free shuttle bus to one of the two nearby outlet malls or to the huge Gurnee Mills shopping center in Gurnee, Ill. The auto mall also has a barbershop and shoe-shine service, a coffee shop with free snacks, and a waiting room equipped with communications pods for plugging in laptop computers. Budget Rent A Car operates a unit inside the mall.

Selection is definitely the factor that brings in shoppers like Kathy Spataro, a secretary for the Milwaukee public schools who on a recent day was looking at various car makes and models in the huge Mauro lot.

Ms. Spataro said she was unsure whether she agreed with the no-negotiations policy.

"What attracted me was the variety of cars," she said. "I've been driving by and wanting to stop for a long time."

That's why location is so important, Mr. Mauro said, explaining, "We found a location with strong retail traffic. The fact that it's outlet store traffic makes no difference-it's still retail traffic."

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