Fast Luxury's Slow Sell

Four Sales Makes A Good Month And People Seeking A Free Ride Are Easy To Spot At State's Only Maserati Showroom

November 02, 2009|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Local motorists bored with their Mercedes, BMW or Bentley have one place to go around here where someone will listen to such troubles without judgment, without even a snicker. At Maryland's only Maserati dealer, they understand.

On York Road in Timonium, of all places, across from Bagel Works and next to Timonium Animal Hospital, Jack Davis, the general manager, and salesman Alfred Ramos hear the stories of men, and even the occasional woman, in pursuit of something ... something ... else. It's not a matter of "need" in the usual sense of the word, as Ramos acknowledged.

"No one needs a Maserati," he said.

The curvaceous body, the 400-plus horsepower, the lightning-fast transmission, the Italian leather, the breathtaking pickup and braking, the conspicuous prestige - this blend of muscle and luxury is not the stuff of need but of desire.

Maserati builds fewer than 8,000 of these cars a year, all by hand, catering to a most exclusive club.

"What we're selling is the line of separation" Ramos said.

It's for Ramos and Davis to consider the line between those who can afford to join the club and those who can only dream about it. They comprise the entire sales staff and half the employees of Maserati of Baltimore, now in its third year in Baltimore County. One of 52 dealerships in 28 states, according to the company Web site, the store is open - really.

This point might escape passers-by peering into the showroom, which often seems to have been abandoned by humans to the stunning presence of Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, cars that start at nearly $130,000 new and quickly accelerate.

When the place opened in 2007, local reaction was mixed. Some wondered what in the world a Maserati dealership was doing in Baltimore. Others thought such recognition of the county's status was overdue. Some couldn't help but ask: Are you going to make it?

More than two years later, Davis does not seem concerned, no matter the recession and the fact that sales are down about 40 percent from 2008, when he said the dealership sold "about 40" new cars, nearly hitting their target.

"The store is not going away," he said, seeming unconcerned about the quiet prevailing in the shop.

For hours on end on one rainy and cool October weekday, the phones scarcely rang, and the only people to step through the glass doors were delivering something - a mail carrier, a UPS guy, a fellow wheeling in a small load of tires. Davis insisted that business is fine, or as fine as it needs to be in a place where they call it a good month if they sell four new cars. Managers at local Nissan, Lexus and Toyota dealers said their monthly sales quotas are between 100 and 180 new cars.

This is Maserati, where Davis said foot traffic scarcely tells the story. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald: Selling really expensive cars to the very rich is different from selling less pricey ones to you and me.

"When someone walks in, I'm not trying to leap on them and try to sell them something," said Davis. He said he'd rather they step into the lounge equipped with blue leather couches, the giant TV tuned to the Speed Channel and the Italian coffee machine dispensing espressos, macchiatos and cappuccinos at the touch of a few buttons.

A test drive? Maybe, but probably not right away.

"You've got to use discretion," said Ramos, who has been here since the place opened, having previously worked at a high-volume, high-pressure Land Rover/Jaguar dealership in Tysons Corner, Va. "It's not a kiddie ride, to come in and say 'I drove the Maserati.' "

Say a guy walks in - and it's almost always a guy - says he'd like to have a look around, poke his head into a Quattroporte, settle into the cockpit of a GranTurismo and get a whiff of that Poltrona Frau leather. The car smells like a large, new wallet.

Ramos said he'll ask questions: What kind of cars have you driven? What did you like about them? What did you not like?

"Nine times out of 10 that'll flush out the clowns," Ramos said.

Davis put it this way: "If somebody's coming in here to scam me on a ride, I'm going to pick that up."

They recalled a fellow driving onto the lot a few months ago in an old pickup truck. The conversation went well enough so that the fellow that day test drove a Quattroporte (the four-door) and bought one that week. With one check.

More often, it's less colorful than that. Davis and Ramos spend much of their time cultivating sales leads by working the phones and the cocktail circuit, or just showing up at certain restaurants.

"You go to where someone is paying $50 for a steak," said Ramos.

"Or $80," said Davis.

A good prospect might be someone who has "had their third or fourth or fifth Mercedes Benz. They're bored. They want something else," said Davis. One eventual buyer had had his fill of the BMW "7" series. Another prospect of the moment is "bored with his Bentley."

Given a name and an appointment for a showroom visit, Davis and Ramos can research the prospect ahead of time, do a little Googling. If things check out, Ramos said, it's time to let the car make the pitch.

"You gotta get him in the car. You don't put on the squeeze."

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