Despite slow sales at Smart USA, Jill Lajdziak, president of the brand, is optimistic about the micro car’s future here in the U.S. “This brand is all about sustainability,” she says.
“Smart can grow beyond the micro segment,” Lajdziak said during a press preview of the new Smart Electric Vehicle that will debut in October. “The health of this brand requires bringing up new variants.”
Daimler AG, owner of Smart Car, said in April when announcing a new tie with Renault SA-Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. that the next Smart car and the Renault Twingo will be built on a common platform, developed together, in two-door and four-door variants.
“We could bring out a little larger vehicle with good fuel economy,” Lajdziak hints here, while admitting, “we’ve got to get to profitability by growing volume.”
Smart USA never has met its sales targets. It fell far short of its 30,000 units goal for the first year of distribution in the U.S., and demand has seen a steady decline since. U.S. sales this year plunged about 60 percent through June. Despite falling demand, the brand still has 77 dealers in the U.S. Smart USA also has increased its distribution network, adding new stores in Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
Nationwide, the current average transaction price for a Smart ForTwo is $14,500, bouncing back from a drop in 2009. Lajdziak says the coupe accounts for 80 percent of sales and the cabriolet picks up the remainder.
Showroom traffic is not where it needs to be at this point, she admits, so Smart is launching some new “intercept” marketing initiatives.
One such pilot project recently debuted in Detroit, where a street team was able to draw a number of leads. Smart also is employing a road-show trailer that pulls into congested urban sites to attract consumers.
“I did the street-team stuff myself in order to interact with consumers,” says Lajdziak, who became president of the brand at the beginning of the year. Formerly, she led GM’s Saturn brand.
Another consumer initiative allows Smart buyers to customize their vehicles with “smart expressions,” an almost unlimited palette of exterior color choices and numerous body wrap designs. “Smart expressions builds on the innovative Smart brand and empowers owners to be creative with their vehicles through a number of personalization choices,” Lajdziak says.
Last year, she was retained by Roger Penske, president of the Penske Automotive Group (PAG), to help finalize Saturn’s purchase from General Motors. That deal eventually imploded, but Penske was so impressed with Lajdziak’s work on the project he hired her to run Smart USA, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of PAG.
Penske is chairman and CEO of the company, the second-largest chain of retail dealerships in the U.S. PAG owns a flagship Smart franchise in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where Lajdziak oversees day-to-day operations. She took command of the dealership to test retail techniques she perfected while running Saturn.
Ladjziak says she hopes to eventually incorporate many of the sales practices Saturn was noted for, as it became an icon for customer service in the auto industry. In the last three months, the Bloomfield Hills outlet has been one of the top three Smart stores in the nation.
Lajdziak says Smart hopes to offer more fuel-efficient models in the future, but there won’t be a diesel available in the U.S. for some time. “Down the road, a diesel is something we should consider.” — Herb Shuldiner, Motor Matters
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2010