Saturn dealers try new sales approach High-pressure sales, confusion in pricing ends.

When Ed Sprigman lost his job as a pilot with Eastern Airlines, he decided to give automobile sales a try.

But his brief experience at one Baltimore dealership had him rethinking his career choice. He didn't like haggling with customers over prices. At times, he felt as if he were deceiving the buyers. And he wasn't pleased with the way he was being treated, either.


Then a friend told him about a new dealership that was opening in Baltimore that touted a different philosophy in car sales. Now, Sprigman is a salesman at the new Saturn dealership in Glen Burnie, which opens officially today.

Saturn promises that customers won't be subjected to high-pressure sales tactics or confusing pricing schemes. Service is to be as important as sales. And, the company says it has built a car that equals or tops foreign small-car competition.


Sprigman's indoctrination into the philosophy of the new General Motors car company came at a three-day training course at the company's plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. All employees, from dealership owners to salespeople and mechanics, must go through training at the 4 million-square-foot Saturn plant.

Sprigman returned from his training course on a Friday evening. The next day, he sold his first Saturn.

Today, Saturn of Glen Burnie and Saturn of Owings Mills opened with representatives from Saturn corporate offices and the United Auto Workers union joining in the ceremonies. A third Saturn dealership opened today in Marlow Heights to serve customers in the Washington area.

The new facilities in Maryland are among some 40 dealerships that will open in the next 60 days, bringing the number of Saturn dealerships to more than 100. The car company has sold more than 7,000 cars since October.

"Saturn has made it much easier on salesmen," Sprigman said. "I may stay in the retail sales business based on this dealership."

Under the Saturn philosophy, dealers are called retailers. Salesmen are called sales consultants. The showrooms are designed in an unpretentious, open-air style. The repair service is beside the showroom rather than behind it, and customers waiting for repairs and maintenance are seated in a lounge in one corner of the showroom. Even the desks of the dealership are designed to make customers feel more at ease. Sales persons do not have their own desks, and the desks that are there are more like curved tables without defined fronts or backs.

"It's no longer a concept that if the customer doesn't buy a car today that I've failed," said Ronald Johnston, general manager of Saturn of Glen Burnie.

Saturn even places brochures near the front door, so customers can take one without talking with a salesperson.


"Instead of just going with the product, we asked how people would like to be treated," said Nicholas T. Turner, Saturn's field executive for the East Coast.

People said they didn't like negotiating prices, so the dealerships will sell cars at a set price that Saturn claims is $1,000 to $1,500 below prices for Honda Civics, Toyota Corollas and Nissan Sentras -- cars targeted as the competition.

And, bowing to demand of customers who don't want to be forced to buy options they don't want, most Saturns in the showrooms aren't loaded with extras. The standard equipment, however, includes a number of features that are optional on other cars, such as rear window defrosters and reclining front seats.

Saturn also introduces a new labor philosophy in America. When GM decided it wanted to form a new car company to go after foreign small-car buyers, it invited the UAW to help draw up a plan.

By 1987, GM and the union had negotiated a special labor contract featuring no time clocks, no restrictive work rules and pay linked to performance. Workers accepted a contract with pay 80 percent of standard UAW contracts, but they have the chance to make up the difference and more if the plant is profitable.

At the Spring Hill, Tenn., plant, managers don't have special perks such as reserved parking spaces. All workers are expected to participate in decisions about production, scheduling, marketing and other facets of the business.


Since the plant opened early last year, absenteeism among the 3,900 union members has been less than 1 percent -- a rate less than one-tenth that of typical American plants.

The novelty of the ideas created enthusiasm among dealers. More than 3,000 dealers competed for 60 franchises to market Saturn cars. Dealers were chosen based on their market penetration and customer-service record and after interviewing owners and employees of the companies.

"It was the first time I had seen so many people from different parts of the automotive industry sitting down together and making a sincere effort to do things differently," said Jerry Fader, president and owner of Heritage Automotive Group in Owings Mills, which owns the Saturn franchise for the north and northwest side of the city. "This is a fresh, new approach to designing, building and marketing an automobile and I want to be part of it."

Larry Caulk, vice president of Griffith Management Services, said the reason his company was attracted to Saturn was the exclusivity of the franchise arrangements. Only two franchises are to be given in the Baltimore area, the one for Heritage and Griffith's.

Steve Griffith, who operates 16 other dealerships, has the franchise for Saturn dealerships in Glen Burnie, Columbia, Ellicott City, Catonsville and Annapolis.

The task of starting a new company hasn't been without trouble, however. Dealerships on the East Coast were supposed to open in February, but opening was delayed until this week because Saturn fell behind in production.


And the company voluntarily recalled 1,210 cars in February because of problems with the seat recliner mechanisms. Saturn built 4,245 cars last year, but only 1,881 were delivered as the result of problems that delayed production and shipment.

Despite the delay, the car appears to be selling well. The Saturn in Glen Burnie sold 13 cars in about a week.

Saturn dealers and representatives said they are not concerned about launching a new car company during a recession. With the gulf war over and signs of improvement in the economy, they said they believed Americans are ready to buy an American car.

"I think it's a great opportunity," Caulk said. "I think there's a lot of pent-up demand."