Luxury carmakers moving into city center locations

Audi opens 'digital' showroom in Berlin

Luxury carmakers moving into city center locations

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BERLIN (Reuters) -- Audi has opened a "digital" showroom on a major Berlin shopping street, part of a shift by luxury carmakers to display vehicles virtually as they move into smaller, pricier city center locations to woo young, affluent buyers.

The showroom, on Berlin's grand Kurfuerstendamm boulevard, is a quarter of the size of a conventional dealership and displays just four models. But it allows time-pressed customers to view and configure cars from Audi's full 49-model lineup on multi-media screens, without having to drive out of town.

It's a strategy also being embraced by German rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz as carmakers overhaul sales practices and look for new ways to attract customers after a six-year European market slump.

"Staging the brand is becoming so much more important," Audi's head of Germany sales, Wayne Griffiths, told Reuters.

London and Beijing

The digital showroom, opened on last week, is Audi's third worldwide after openings in London and Beijing.

Like its two German rivals, Audi is faced with the challenge of displaying an ever-growing model and technology portfolio in urban centers where space is scarce.

Hence the smaller 375-square-meter showroom and the focus on virtual demonstrations, which are combined with the personal touch of a car dealer and the comfort of a customer lounge.

Audi is attracting 8,000 visitors a week to its digital showroom in Beijing which opened in January 2013, and at the store in London, launched in July 2012, 60 percent of customers are new to the brand, Griffiths said.

Audi has pledged to overtake BMW as the world's best-selling luxury brand by the end of the decade and shrank the sales gap with its rival to 80,000 cars in 2013 from 85,000 in 2012. BMW outsold third-ranked Mercedes by 193,000 autos last year, compared with 220,000 in 2012.

While Audi still shuns Internet-based deals, BMW is selling its new all-electric i3 city car over the Web and will also take online orders on the new i8 plug-in hybrid supercar, due to arrive at dealerships this spring, spokeswoman Birgit Hiller said.

"We're paying heed to changing buying habits," she said. "Expanding online sales to other models is conceivable, but there are no such plans as yet."

BMW has a series of brand stores in major urban areas such as Paris and New York and employs so-called "product geniuses" to help customers configure models online, Hiller said.

Mercedes has a goal of more than doubling its approximate 20 urban brand stores by 2020, when it also aims to retake the premium car sales crown from BMW.

The carmaker started online sales of compact models through outlets in Germany and Poland last December.

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