A couple of stories first:
1 – When we looked for a new car last summer we were in a Subaru dealership and growing quite interested in one model. But we didn’t like the color on the showroom model, and the color we thought we’d like was a little square paint swatch in a brochure. There was no model on the lot with that color.
2 – Pat Hellberg and I were meeting recently with a client, and debating the future of digital in retail environments. An executive with the client firm – very senior, very smart guy – was openly questioning the merits of digital displays in an iPad and smartphone world. I argued that it wasn’t a choice of one or the other. It was both. And big digital displays were coming to retail whether head office directed it or the franchisees did their own thing. So “direct” … before digital signage goes in every direction on you, I suggested.
Which brings us to news from the UK of Audi City, a showroom for the fast-rising German automaker located near London’s Piccadilly Circus. It doesn’t have cars. It has huge, tiled video display walls so they can show a lot of cars in minimal space.
It is, says the BBC, a central part of the global marketing plan and there will be more than 20 similar showrooms open, globally, by 2015.
The more I think about this, the more I think how big a moment this is for this sector. This shifts the whole argument from eye candy to core business initiative. That”s really, really big.
Full-size cars will be displayed on vast screens, allowing customers to experience a wider variety of cars.
The number on show in traditional showrooms is naturally limited. This is becoming a problem for carmakers, as modern design, engineering and manufacturing methods have led to a sharp increase in the range of derivatives of each model made.
Consequently, many in the industry expect other carmakers to follow suit.
Audi’s new retail environment is designed to reach more urban customers in areas where few rivals have a presence.
This is particularly important for luxury car companies, which are often trying to attract customers who live in the most expensive areas of major cities.
“These showrooms will be right in the midst of our customers’ lives,” says Audi’s executive sales and marketing director Peter Schwarzenbauer.
Audi’s dealerships will be designed to be entertaining, often by featuring art, culture and design exhibitions, as well as readings or round-table discussions, to attract a greater audience.
This, the carmaker hopes, will give its sales staff the chance to build closer relationships with customers.
“This new retail format brings us even closer to our customers,” says Mr Schwarzenbauer.
Cars are displayed on three massive screens, each made up of nine 72-inch panels, which Audi call Powerwalls. Kinect-style cameras recognize when you want to interact with the screens, and motion sensors on the floor are used to cycle through options.
When you’ve loaded up your car, a video showing it driving around will play, and the exact sound of the engine you’ve chosen will play through the speakers.
When you’re all done, the car you’ve designed will be loaded onto a memory stick for you to take away.
Awesome. I don’t think this is the end of auto showrooms as we know them. Not even close. Those people exist, but the number of thm who will buy cars without first sitting in those cars – never mind drive them – is limited.
So this is part of the future of dealerships, but certainly not all of the future.
However, for luxury automakers with loyal repeat buyers and aspirational new buyers, this sort of urban dealership for high net-worth, time-limited people will have real appeal. Even as a branding exercise and first step on the buying path, I think it works.
Extending the logic back to the suburbs and people like me – who lease Subaru Foresters and just daydream of buying Audi TTs – this idea has a lot of merit. We think of digital display in auto dealers and other retail environments as a tool to drive awareness and up-sell of services and accessories. The big display walls are about the sizzle – the sight of a particular model tearing down a mountain two-laner. It’s all cool, but where’s the ROI?
However, when I think back to last summer and looking at Subarus – just walking over to a Forester-sized video wall and tapping on the touchscreen paint swatch icons would have brought that model right in front of me. And the deal would have been done. If I can get a solid sense of what I want from what IS on the showroom floor, and build something life-sized right there on a digital wall … THAT’S cool and effective.
Instead, with nothing but a paint swatch to work with we came back a second time just to see something – another model entirely – in that color (and leased it).
Audi City is really interesting, given how display costs are coming down and display wall bezels all but disappearing.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.