Without any immediate product freshening plans, Smart hopes to boost interest in the small ForTwo with stronger marketing efforts for 2010, according to Jill Lajdziak, president of Smart USA. While sales dropped from 24,662 in 2008 to 14,600 in 2009, Lajdziak says the company needs to increase volume the ForTwo before adding vehicles makes sense.
“I think we have an opportunity to grow the current volume and I think in the near term that’s what we’re going to be very focused on,” she said.
Smart currently has 77 dealers, and Lajdziak believes there’s no need to increase that number. Rather, the company will look at marketing efforts to raise the ForTwo’s visibility in other locations to drive traffic to showrooms.
“Not everybody necessarily wants to go to a retail facility,” she explained. “But taking the vehicle out and giving people the chance to test drive the vehicle is certainly a huge opportunity.”
One possibility includes creating temporary storefronts in popular shopping areas that might pop up for a few months before disappearing. Car sharing also represents an opportunity to increase Smart’s visibility.
In Austin, Texas, a pilot program using 200 ForTwos allows city employees to rent cars by the minute. Members can walk up to a car and unlock it by waving their membership card over the windshield. While many car-sharing cooperatives require users to return their vehicle to a fixed location, the Car2Go program in Austin only requires the car be left within set boundaries of the city. The plan is to eventually open Car2Go to the public.
In addition to a blue and white car dressed for Car2Go, Smart was showing the Chrome Yellow limited edition at the Detroit auto show. Smart is also preparing an electric ForTwo for a small trial program that should start this year. Mass production and distribution of the electric car will come in 2012.
Rated at 41 mpg on the highway, the gas ForTwo will see increased competition in the next two years as cars like the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta arrive with more practicality and predicted fuel economy of 40 mpg. Smart’s president, though, doesn’t think they constitute a threat.
“I think that people attracted to this vehicle are urban dwellers, they want to make a statement, they’re skewed toward technology, they’re skewed to something just a little bit different, and this vehicle offers that,” Lajdziak said. “As more competitors come to the market, it’s just good for the segment. It creates energy.”
Lajdziak was the top executive for GM’s Saturn until it was closed late last year when Penske Automotive Group (which is the sole Smart distributor in the U.S.) decided not to purchase the brand. Penske’s canceled attempt to acquire Saturn had no implications for Smart, as there was never any plan to share resources or dealers, according to Lajdziak.