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Very real orders from the virtual showroom

In the middle of 2012, Audi began an interesting experiment in Piccadilly, London.

The idea was to have a car showroom in which customers wouldn’t find any cars.  Instead, they would be confronted with numerous touch-screen computers and banks of TV screens, through which they could specify and view – in full scale – any model in the Audi range.

To add an element of financial jeopardy they could then order and buy their chosen car – all without ever seeing it, touching it, or (gasp) driving it.  It was, in other words, a bit like buying trousers on Amazon.  You know what they look like, and you’ve a pretty good idea that the size is right, but it’s a bit of a gamble whether the product will actually be right for you when it arrives.

The thing is, the modern car buyer has a pretty good idea of what something is going to be like long before they buy it – through research, past experience and the knowledge that there aren’t really any genuine four-wheeled ‘lemons’ out there any more.  Furthermore, few people care about what a car feels like to drive these days.  And Audi isn’t foolish; it knows that its products stand up to scrutiny – digital or otherwise.

So, when the Piccadilly-bound pedestrian wants to buy an Audi, according to the figures, they’ve had no problem in only ever seeing it on a computer screen.  In fact, 80% of customers ordering cars through at the Audi ‘digital dealership’ didn’t take a test drive.  Perhaps more remarkably, 80% were new customers to the brand with little or no prior experience of its products.  And to add icing to the profitable cake, give someone a touch-screen to spec their car and they evidently get a bit giddy with the options list – Audi says the amount of kit on the cars that had been ordered was above the norm.

Another thing those clever chaps at Audi noted was that the dealership’s catchment was far wider usual.  Audi UK boss, Martin Sander, commented, “Traditionally, a showroom sold cars to people who lived in the area, but now it has a far wider customer base, and the digital experience is really capturing the imagination of customers.”

There is probably a novelty element in this, but with fewer people apparently interested in a test drive, there is a business case for facilities like this in key locations.

Audi’s experiment – soon to be rolled out globally – does add credence to the idea of consumers eventually going online to purchase a car.  When you think about it, it’s a pretty small step from going into a physical dealership with no cars, to a virtual one with no walls.

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