Big Jeep store opens after pandemic changes sales scene

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Construction delays scuttled Kelly Automotive Group’s plan to open a sprawling new Jeep store on 6 acres near Boston last fall. The group then hoped to have the dealership up and running in time for the big Presidents’ Day weekend, but it still wasn’t ready.

The postponements turned out to have some benefits.

Not only did the Lynnfield, Mass., store avoid a head-on collision with the pandemic in the spring, but the 10-month setback let the dealership tailor its layout for the COVID-19 era, allowing for more spacing in the sales and service areas. Spreading things out led to some spots being turned into working spaces that weren’t originally planned to be.

The opening in August, after consumers and businesses adjusted to a new reality and auto plants were running again, cast the company’s $20 million investment in an entirely different light, Kelly COO Brian Heney said.

“We would have had a different mind-set,” Heney told Automotive News. “That would have been more like, ‘Did we make the right decision? Are we going to be able to work through this, are we going to come out of this OK?’ versus actually just having it and saying, ‘Look, we’re going to be just fine.’ ”

The 46,000-square-foot facility, which the group says is the largest standalone Jeep store in the U.S., is among a growing number of dealerships dedicated solely to the rugged SUV brand as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles seeks more exclusivity for it in certain markets.

It’s also one of the first new dealerships entering a world reshaped by the pandemic — one in which many consumers would prefer to work through more of the sales process digitally instead of spending much time in this Jeep palace. But Kelly already had made the investment, which included buying the land for the store, so it has to move forward in a much different sales environment than previously envisioned.

While some Jeep stores have adopted a casual dress code, the Kelly location will stick with its tried-and-true formula of having salespeople wear suits.

The group hopes the professional look, combined with the new store’s aesthetics, will pay dividends as Jeep works to attract more affluent buyers who are accustomed to upscale experiences. The pinnacle for the brand will be the upcoming Grand Wagoneer, a three-row luxury hauler that will stretch into six-figure territory and aim to compete with the Range Rover.

“We try to follow the same guide as the Ritz-Carlton follows,” Heney said. “I like to use their 10 steps all the time. I call it being professionally bland.”

The new dealership is next door to Kelly’s old Jeep-Chrysler location, which closed for a month when the pandemic began in the spring. Although it’s dedicated to Jeep, the group hasn’t given up on its Chrysler franchise; how it will handle that brand is still being ironed out.

Kelly’s Jeep store will soon be packed with a variety of new models. The Grand Wagoneer will be joined by the less expensive Wagoneer, along with a redesigned Grand Cherokee and another three-row utility slated to begin production in early 2021 at a new assembly plant in Detroit. A plug-in hybrid Wrangler, meanwhile, is due out by the end of the year.

“Whenever you make an investment like we made in our Jeep facility, you want to know that the product is going to be coming behind so you have a level of comfort — and we do have that,” Heney said. “The Jeep product coming through is pretty phenomenal. We don’t have any remorse at all. We’re not second guessing anything.”

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