Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
retail tainment

For those of you on the English side of the pond, a "Hummer" is a large, wide, low-slung 4X4 built in the US of A. The off-roader first invaded American consciousness during the feature-length TV series known as The Gulf War. An Austrian immigrant (who parlayed his ability to lift heavy weights into something not unlike an acting career) led the civilian rush to transfer the H1 to the suburban theatre. GM's marketing radar detected the trend and annexed Hummer. This year, the General finally spat out a "civilian" Hummer: the H2.

Mechanically, the H2 is fundamentally similar to the military-spec H1. Both vehicles have astounding off-road capabilities. Both vehicles have been beaten with an ugly stick. Repeatedly. But what sets Hummer apart from all other American SUVs—aide from the fact that the Hummer was originally designed to help kill people—is the way GM has set out to sell the beast.

GM calls it "retail-tainment". Obviously, any concept with a name that assaults rather than trips over the tongue is asking for trouble. As Elvis said, if you're looking for trouble, you've come to the right place. Specifically, you've come to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the world's first Hummer dealership. It's ground zero for GM's campaign to make car dealerships less of a battleground, and more of a theme park. Or, in this case, a battleground theme park.

Confused? Think of it this way: car dealerships haven't changed in the last 100 years. In the main, they're huge glass structures with sparkling cars and wilting ferns, populated by packs of skulking salesmen. More than thirty years after the mall-ing of America, the car industry has finally twigged that even Nazi architect Albert Speer couldn't have designed a more sterile, intimidating environment than the traditional automotive "fish bowl". The six million dollar Hummer dealership is the inevitable result.

John Horgstrom's Hummer dealership is the General's first ground-up attempt to create a user-friendly retail environment. In this case, the "fun" is "themed" on the brand's military heritage. The building was built to look like a gigantic Quonset hut, the corrugated iron shed used by the American military during WWII. You enter Hummer HQ through a gigantic letter H. Although there's no armed guard at the door to salute you, the dealer's civilian staff have a goal: to get customers into a Hummer and onto the adjoining obstacle course.

The course is where the going gets tough, and the tough buy an SUV. It demonstrates the Hummer's abilities in conditions the average SUV driver would never see outside of a TV commercial (or a Hummer dealership). It lets salesmen use their off-road driving skills to establish dominance over their customers. And it suffuses a buyer's bloodstream with sales-friendly endorphins.

The course is, in fact, the future. Providing the Milwaukee experiment goes to plan, providing GM commits to a third model line, the General will deploy 156 themed Hummer dealerships across the Land of the Free. Industry savvy pistonheads will recognize the trend. Land Rover has already experimented with on-site off-roading. Given the macho emotional investment needed to buy something so obviously inappropriate as a road-going off-roader, the "theme-ing" of the 4X4 business is bound to succeed, and continue.

"Retail-tainment" will eventually extend to other automotive genres. How long before Porsche dealerships look like pit lane garages? How long before Aston Martin dealerships become gentleman's clubs? How long before Renault dealerships morph with patisseries, offering a choice of fresh-baked croissants or half-baked Avantines? Not long. And not before time.

The move towards "retail-tainment" will generate significant benefits for both consumers and carmakers. For one thing, it will keep manufacturers focused. Hummer's huge investment in military chic will force it to stay within its suburban warrior remit. Porsche will have to choose whether it wants to sell road-going sports cars or Paris Dakar wannabees. Ford, Mercedes, BMW, Toyota and the rest will all have to figure out what they do differently than the other guy, then create an appropriate retail environment to "sell the sizzle".

Will Ford go for value for money, and create a giant automotive Tesco's? Will Mercedes create a dealership that looks like Dr. No's lair, perfect for plotting world domination? Whatever retail theme a car maker chooses for his products, the huge investment required will make it harder for them to change "brand identity". As a result, we can expect to see the birth of more specialised sub-brands (e.g. Toyota's Lexus), and more finely honed products.

As silly as it sounds, automotive "retail-tainment" represents a long overdue revolution. Old-style car dealerships are one of the most unremittingly inhospitable sales environments ever devised. It's no surprise that most people would rather go to the dentist than face the sharks cruising the fish bowl. No matter what the ultimate impact on the auto industry, anything that makes buying a car more fun than root canal surgery has got to be a good thing.

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  • Cayman Cayman on Apr 26, 2007

    Let's see, the H2 is a "large, wide, low slung vehicle". It's also built on GM Truck Group's GMT800 chassis, just like the Silverado, Tahoe, Suburban, and GMC equivalents. Except of course the the next generation 2007+ GM full-size trucks, which are built on the much-improved GMT900 chassis. So what does the Hummer offer that the other large wide GMT800 and newer GMT900 trucks don't? A bigger dent in your wallet when you buy the Hummer, fuel the Hummer, and service the Hummer. ... and now retail theatrics to make the Hummer owner even more special! Somebody please try to hold me back. I am feeling the sudden urge to visit Hummerland in Milwaukee! GM, please ENTERTAIN ME!!! Okay, seriously, I don't know whether i would rather see the Hummer vehicle sales taxed to oblivion, or the inheritances of the stupid Hummer buyers taxed through the roof. Maybe both?

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