Consumer experience at the heart of the re-imagined dealership

Christian Chia encapsulates the two defining traits of P.T. Barnum: salesmanship and showmanship.

Both were on display Tuesday afternoon in Burnaby as the president of the OpenRoad Auto Group broke ground on his latest automotive dealership at the northeast corner of Lougheed Highway and Boundary Road.

In fact, it is two dealerships that will open their doors next year: a brand new Volkswagen dealership and a relocated Audi dealership.
Tuesday’s groundbreaking was for the VW store, and in keeping with the German brand theme, the showman in Chia came out. The front end of a buried VW camper was exposed for a unique shovels-in-the-dirt photo op for what will be one of the country’s largest Volkswagen dealer when it opens next summer. The price tag? A cool $51 million.

Unique is also a good way to describe the two new businesses, which represent the new philosophy of automotive dealerships.

Volkswagen Canada president Maria Stenström, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan and OpenRoad Auto Group president Christian Chia pose with a VW camper during a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday afternoon in Burnaby.

Volkswagen Canada president Maria Stenström, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan and OpenRoad Auto Group president Christian Chia pose with a VW camper during a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday afternoon in Burnaby.
Bill Kwok, Bill Kwok,

Once little more than glorified parking lots, dealerships of the 21st Century are multimillion-dollar investments designed with an enjoyable shopping experience in mind, something woefully lacking in the traditional locations.

“You always hear, ‘I hate going into a car dealership,’” BC New Car Dealers Association CEO Blair Qualey said.

“But with municipalities expecting different things from developers — which includes automotive dealers — you’re seeing an entirely new way of planning and building dealerships.”

Chia’s OpenRoad group, which has 11 locations in B.C., is only too happy to create such shopping experiences, and in fact he contends that his industry’s survival depends on it.

“The auto mall is now online,” he said Tuesday. “But we feel the store experience, the brick and mortar, is still very, very important. And the way I see it, it is even more important than it’s ever been.”

That’s in large part due to the quality of vehicles being built today.

“The key thing that is driving this is consumers know there are incredible products out there,” Chia said. “A lot of the brands are producing fantastic designs, great quality, just world-class products.”

In the past, that was the exception. Today, that’s the norm.

“So the defining moment now for most manufacturers is the customer experience,” Chia said. “And that takes place in the showroom and in the service centre.”

That is what is driving these kind of investments in the industry, he added, “and that’s what gets me excited — we’re not just about the sales.”

One of the most striking elements of the new development will be a large sculpture between the two dealerships, created by a renowned artist with strong ties to the automotive world.

Gerry Judah is a British artist famous for, among other things, creating the iconic sculptures for the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed in the U.K. These include whimsical tributes to the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Audi and Jaguar, incorporating actual vehicles in soaring outdoor installations.

Chia met Judah two years ago at Goodwood and told him he admired his work and hoped that one day they could work together on a project.

That day came when OpenRoad began discussions with the City of Burnaby about building the two dealerships at the high-traffic intersection of Boundary Road and Lougheed Highway, and city officials requested a piece of public art to be incorporated into the plan.

“And I said, ‘I have the perfect guy in mind,’” Chia said.

Once he saw the site and its visibility, an inspired Judah put paper to pen and produced a wing-like sculpture.

For Volkswagen Canada president Maria Stenström, in attendance for Tuesday’s groundbreaking, the new dealership encapsulates the direction the business of selling cars is headed.

“What’s driving these kind of investments in these types of dealerships is really how the expression of the brand is perceived,” Stenström said, “and how important it is today to stand out not just for the product, but for the brand.

“It’s now an experience equal to any other shop.”

She said Vancouver is a key market to Volkswagen in Canada.

“It’s a growing population and a dynamic city. You see it everywhere,” she said.

And beginning next summer, it will be difficult to miss the OpenRoad Volkswagen and Audi dealerships on the corner of one of the province’s busiest intersections.

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About Andrew McCredie