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From Detroit to digital: the evolution of the automotive showroom

As industry approaches the one year anniversary of lockdown, Ian Barlow explores which changes will become the new normal and which old habits will be left behind

In the early 1890s, William Metziger was the humble owner of a bicycle shop in the heart of Detroit. Upon attending the world’s first automobile show in London in 1895, he became convinced that the future of travel was machine automated. After visiting the factories of Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, then the leading automobile manufacturers in the world, he returned to Detroit and sold his bicycle store. Metzger then built the world’s first automobile showroom in 1897. And the rest is history.

Showrooms have played a critical role in driving the automotive revolution. Across the globe, they became the primary touchpoint through which consumers could engage with auto brands, browse models and get a hands-on experience of what a car feels like. That was until 2020.

For many automotive brands and retailers, it has now been one year since the doors of their showrooms were unexpectedly closed following the arrival of COVID-19 and the global lockdown measures it necessitates. So how has this year fundamentally changed the way in which we browse and buy cars, and what must automotive brands do to ensure they stay firmly in the driving seat?

Accelerating change

The pandemic has naturally accelerated the role of online sales and experience in the automotive purchase process. However, what automotive brands and retailers were not ready for was digital playing the primary role in shaping a customer’s experience.

What automotive brands and retailers were not ready for was digital playing the primary role in shaping a customer’s experience

The importance of an omni-channel strategy has long been known to auto brands—research from Salesforce back in 2019 found that 79% of consumers conducted online research before making a purchase online. But whilst traditionally the role of digital for auto brands was to funnel customers towards experiencing a car at a physical showroom, for many digital is the experience.

Automotive brands now need to aspire to tailor every aspect of a customer interaction to individual needs and preferences, whether expressed or inferred, all without being able to rely on the human expertise of a salesperson in the room. There is a huge amount of data generated by consumers in the purchase journey—and car brands have it aplenty. But— providing customers agree to sharing information to improve their customer and product experience—it’s the intelligent use of this data that is the challenge when seeking to shape a winning customer experience, whether inside or outside the showroom.

It is a relatively new challenge for many automotive brands to really understand the needs of a customer without having ever met them. Even armed with conventional data and insight, people often superficially appear one way whilst acting in another. That time-poor business person? Their financial profile might lead you to assume they want the seller to do all the legwork when it comes to car ownership or maintenance, but in a lockdown environment many have actually had more time and been open to in-depth conversations about a new type of car ownership or taking advantage of wider trends like switching to an electric vehicle. Automotive brands have to ask themselves how deep does their usable data go? Can they understand not just the demographics but also a specific individual’s mindset in that precise moment? Then are they equipped to offer personalised customer experience and content to suit this staggering variety of needs?

Renault virtual showroom guru
Renault recently launched a new online retail platform offering virtual showroom vehicle tours

Brands have had time to work out this challenge and should now have effective and intelligent audience segmentation to be able to offer ambitious experiences for customers; experiences that are richer, more complex and more fluid, and personalised to individuals, not demographic profiles.

Using values as a vehicle

Understanding changing consumer attitudes is crucial to brands when creating a compelling digital showroom experience. Consumers continue to demand more than a car as a product—they want it because it allows them to live their life according to their values. To capture the interest and attention of consumers looking at all-electric models, Audi partnered with Octopus Energy for its new E-tron range, offering all new E-tron customers a free home charging kit with £150 (US$208) credit.

Earlier this month Jeep looked to embed itself within the Amazon ecosystem, and capture consumers who are looking for the next generation of in-car entertainment. Jeep announced that the launch of the 2022 Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer SUVs will include a first: onboard access to Amazon Fire TV, the streaming video intermediary to Prime Video and third-party video apps.

Whilst traditionally the role of digital for auto brands was to funnel customers towards experiencing a car at a physical showroom, for many digital is the experience

These examples illustrate how embedded digital has become in the automotive experience. Digital technologies are omnipresent in our lives and they are becoming an increasingly bigger part of the in-car experience, as well as a primary driver in the purchase journey.

It’s important to remember that consumer expectations for digital experiences are not limited within the automotive sector. The digital experience consumers have with anything from Amazon to Netflix is setting the bar. This means that consumers now expect interactions to be seamless and their preferences to be noted and reflected across the board. This is why a good digital expert would challenge clients to look beyond the data—to understand the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’.

The world has changed unrecognisably in the last year, let alone since William Metziger opened the first automotive showroom in 1897. Consumers are faced with an ocean of choice and auto brands and retailers aren’t able to rely on salespeople always controlling and crafting the whole experience first hand. Instead, we are living in an era where the best retailers are using data and partnerships to craft highly personalised experiences for each customer at different times. This journey doesn’t finish with the end of COVID-19; it’s merely the beginning.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Ian Barlow is Group Business Director at Zone

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