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Future Of The Auto Salesroom And How To Sell Cars To Millennials

The technician points his smartphone to a blank space and a car interior appears on the screen. We virtually enter, altering the seat color and dashboard finish. At the adjoining exhibit, I wear a virtual reality head-set and 'boom', I am transported to another universe. This time I examine my desired car on location in a city center, step inside to once again play with the color palette, then step out to find myself by the seaside. An email shortly lands in my In Box linking me to a personalized web page featuring the car I’ve just virtually configured on a road trip. My next stop, according to this choreographed shopping spree, is to walk into an actual showroom where facial recognition would lead to an even more personalized purchase. Welcome to the future of car buying.

This, according to the exhibitor Accenture at the Millennial 20/20 summit in London last week, is the car buying journey of this generation and the following centennials. Admittedly, both the augmented reality technology at the start of my purchase and the VR are a little clunky, but the reality is, for the digital generation it will feel natural, making car buying easier, less troublesome, more informative, personal and an experience. For the generation we call the millennials, the journey is as important as the end transaction.

The auto rule book is changing. Electric and autonomous driving, connective technology and car ownership is challenging how car companies connect with customers. The younger generation is less concerned with car ownership than their parents – happy to share and enjoy the freedom of car-sharing schemes. Good news for the planet; not such great news for car manufacturers.

Joseph Seal-Driver is a great example of this demographic group. The 33-year old director of car sharing scheme DriveNow UK lives in the heart of London with his girlfriend and doesn’t own a personal vehicle. He says he will buy one once they move to the suburbs to start a family. Crucially, he will stay loyal to the brand offered by whatever car sharing scheme he used in his youth – in his case with DriveNow, a MINI and perhaps later a BMW. “We are reaching out to future purchasers and influencing their decisions,” he says confidently.

So, it seems, the purchase will happen, but at a later stage in life for the millennial generation. It also transpires that despite the digital element of shopping, feeling at one with a brand, its outlook and values is essential to a purchase. So, the auto showroom experience remains critical but needs to be more experience-led.

These sentiments were echoed in another conference I attended recently. Vision: Future Retail in Amsterdam saw various professionals from architecture to automotive and fashion discuss and debate this topic with conviction. The reality is that most industries are concerned with how we connect and consume products. Founder of the radical Dutch practice Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) Rem Koolhaas believes that access is replacing the physical - we are still buying products but for very different reasons. He said at the conference that experience is our new status symbol and it is having a profound impact on how many of us shop.

BMW showroom in Amsterdam is a relaxed space for customers to get to know the products in a non-sales environment

OMA work closely with brands to create exciting retail environments including the Prada flagship store in New York and more recently KaDeWe in Berlin, Repossi and Boulevard Haussmann in Paris and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice. Collectively they are not only making strong architectural statements but are also expanding the customer retail experience into an urban architecture experience. They envisage retail as part of your city wonder.

The discussions in Amsterdam centered on the retail space engaging more with consumers, providing excitement, experiences, friendship and a sense of community. Much like social media platforms, they can be a forum for sharing thoughts and ideology. This could involve experimental retail, spaces that are artistic, pop-ups and temporary structure in unusual locations to bring brand awareness.

This is what Rockar do. The company represents Hyundai and Jaguar Land Rover in the UK with its three outlets positioned strategically in crowded shopping center. These are open space with no doors “so we are interrupting that shopping journey,” says the company founder Simon Dixon. Speaking at Millennial 20/20 he says: “It’s not so much about the product but the buying experience.” Sales talk is a no-no as consumers mistrust a sales environment. Instead, “enhance the buying experience,” advises Dixon. His trick is to create a store that looks and feels nothing like a car showroom, employ staff from outside the auto world and devote only a tiny fraction of the customer interaction to hard sales.

Much of this, of course, echoes the ideas presented already by Audi City, a fully digital car salesroom located in urban centers and built on the Apple model to connect with millennials.

MINI Living explores how future generations can live in cities and it helps raise brand awareness

The consensus seems to be that car brands will need to offer other services that are inclusive, spaces that are more fluid and flexible in their delivery and provide a bespoke experience. Perhaps the shop of the future will be a gallery of sorts, an interactive and exciting exhibition space, and maybe at the end of that ‘experience’, you make a purchase. A bit like we would buy a souvenir at the end of a vacation.

Michele Fuhs, head of BMW Group Premium Retail Experience, believes that by 2020 the company will need to be the “point of experience”. Speaking in Amsterdam, he told me: “We cannot remain simply sales focused but address what is mobility in the future, what is car ownership. We are competing with the entertainment industry.”

Watch as Accenture shows me how to configure my car prior to a potential purchase using augmented reality at the 2017 Millennial 20/20 summit in London.

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