A New Sales Pitch: The First Lincoln “Experience Center” in the Nation Appears Perfectly Suited for Local Drivers

I step in from the heat and concrete of the mall, into an airy white space, a sea breeze drifting above white porcelain tile floors, a tonic glow rising from the white quartz and plexiglass bar, the whole Hollywood-heaven of it hushed, save for water trickling over a wall of black granite down into a bed of Caribbean pebbles. “Welcome to the Lincoln Experience,” says a server in black tie, offering a plate arranged with artichoke lavender flan in little pools of sweet pea and sorrel.

Illustration by Katy Lemay
Illustration by Katy Lemay

This is a flagship automobile showroom, digitized and loaded with goodies, the likes of which most car buyers haven’t yet seen. The Fashion Island showroom is the first of its kind in the nation for Lincoln—because Orange County, the third-largest premium car market in the U.S., represents exactly the type of new buyer Lincoln is looking for.  Young—well, younger. And rich.

“May I offer you a fruit infusion?” the bartender asks from inside the glowing bar. Infusion is the right word for the whole Lincoln Experience, because it is surprisingly easy to become immersed in this branding experiment. As Lincoln director of North American sales and service operations Andrew Frick puts it, this is an attempt “to elevate the client experience,” turning the showroom into a kind of great room for the community at large.

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What is an elevated client experience? And does it play right into the Orange County stereotype of cartoonish opulence?

The public is invited to sign up for free cooking classes, wine tastings with sommeliers, sculpting lessons, jewelry shows, craft cocktail parties, and concerts from local musicians. The space also is available for select community and charity events.

And there are cars here—three very sexy cars. Frick does his best to play up the features of the new MKZ, which gleams in white at the front of the showroom, like any mall window bauble, except this one sits in the loggia at the entrance. He enthuses over the 30 seating positions that mold to the body, the new Revel symphony-style sound system, the automatic parallel parking assist, and the “Lincoln Embrace,” soft lights inside and outside that turn on when the driver is 8 feet from the vehicle.

Shoppers are treated to museum-quality displays highlighting the design features and to screens of all sizes throughout the room that offer ways to customize a Lincoln. You can Skype a salesperson from the local dealership. There’s low-tech, too—magnetic tiles arranged in a pretty geometric display on one wall are removable, so clients can see car colors in a variety of lighting conditions.

A listening room features a touch screen visitors use to pick seven images they believe define them. Based on those choices, an interior style is suggested. I select pictures of piano keys, a clock, a camera, chocolates, a discarded red rose, books, and bare feet at the edge of a dock. This yields the Oasis theme,  “to reduce the chaos in your life,” presumably by being ensconced in a cream and tan refuge with Venetian leather seats and walnut burl wood trim. Remarkably, the fun little game pegs me exactly, as I dream for an oasis. But with three teenagers, a filthy gardening habit, multiple carpools and cross-country adventures, I couldn’t possibly sustain a pale leather interior. Another round of picks brings up Thoroughbred, a jet-black interior with chestnut leather, and another draws Indulgence, inspired by chocolate.

It’s not as if the car is ignored in this space, but it certainly takes a back seat to the brand.

Sign-up is required for the events, which are scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. every second Thursday of the month. During most business hours, the space, past the valet stand on the McArthur side of the mall, is available for the public to drop in, have a free latte, and relax.

If this is an attempt to elevate the client experience, it’s also clearly an effort to spritz a little youth dew on the Lincoln brand. While the industry average age for car buyers is 52, Lincoln’s clientele hovers in the low 60s.

The idea is not revolutionary, though it is new. Apple, which is making a foray into cars, first offered the brand experience in its mall stores, and the concept spread to the auto industry. Lexus has an experience store in Tokyo. BMW and Daimler have entered urban spaces in London and Paris. And Audi recently opened similar showrooms in London and Beijing where car buyers create their own digitized car. Forbes magazine reported that Audi had a 60 to 70 percent increase in business due to this kind of showroom.
The idea isn’t even new to Fashion Island. There’s a Tesla showroom around the corner from the Lincoln Experience, though Tesla has struggled with legal issues nationally because its direct-sale model challenges the tradition of dealerships.

Dr. Jeff Dembner, a Newport Beach neurosurgeon, sips a Rioja at the first wine tasting. After discovering the showroom by accident, he has signed up for every event Lincoln Experience offers.

“I was walking around Fashion Island waiting for my friend to get a blowout, and I saw the coffee bar,” he says. He has since returned several times for coffee and notes that he sat at the bar without once being approached by a salesperson.

Dembner, who drives a BMW and a Land Rover, is precisely the demographic Lincoln wants to attract—but he says Lincoln might run into another problem locally: “People in Orange County don’t think of American cars as luxury cars.” The Lincoln Experience has made him open to the brand.
Lee Tilton, a retired technical trainer for Saturn from Mission Viejo, agrees that a wine tasting is a great way to be introduced to a new car.

“I hate the idea of somebody trying to sell me a car,” he says. “This makes me feel more at ease.”
Will the concept move Lincolns? Frick says Lincoln gets a 35-point lift in favorable opinion when customers have a firsthand experience. Though it’s only been open a few months, thousands of mall shoppers have stopped by and noticed the brand in a new light, he says.

“We get, ‘Holy Cow. I thought it was only for older people.’ That’s the perception problem we’ve been having,” Frick adds. “But we do believe we’re going to sell vehicles. It’s not what the car can do. It’s what the car can do for you.”

I groan inwardly, but I have to say I love this place. I love the way it feels, and I adore the free noshes, classes, and the company’s support of local charities. I love that there’s a quiet place to put up my feet when my teenagers are hitting Fashion Island, their preferred shopping center.

But its existence raises questions for me. With Tesla already selling directly to the consumer, online purchasing, and now this in a mall, what will be the future of dealerships in America?

As I sit on the lovely tulip stools at the Lincoln Experience, warming my hands on my free latte, I get a little chill that tells me maybe we’re on the brink of another big change in our car-centric Southern California lives.

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