Last year, BMW opened its first Brand Store on an upscale Paris shopping street and says it will be making announcements on similar showrooms later this year.
And in September last year, Mercedes-Benz opened its first Visionary Store in a shopping arcade in central Milan, focusing on the new A class. By locating in prestigious, high-traffic locations, the automakers aim to introduce potential customers to the brand rather than give them the hard sell.
"They're taking pressure off the whole buying process," a BMW spokeswoman told Automotive News Europe.
Part of the appeal is the "wow" factor from the digital technology. BMW spent 11 million euros ($15 million) on the Paris store, of which 3 million went toward the digital element, including five car configurators that can be viewed in 3-D.
At the Beijing Audi City customers can configure their cars using screens with gesture control, while six powerwalls with a total surface area of 94 square meters display their newly configured car driving in a number of settings.
Mercedes also makes use of gesture controls at its Milan store, as well as giving customers the opportunity to experience the company's car-specific apps. Although the test drive and the other dealer functions take place elsewhere, the aim is still to sell cars according to Audi.
"The sales figures have out-paced our expectations," said UK national sales manager Gary Pearson of the Audi City store in London. The Mayfair-based showroom is selling on average seven cars a week "and these generally aren't A1s and A3s," a spokesman said.
Sales staff will send test-drive cars to the customer's home or workplace if requested, but some customers are buying without getting behind the wheel first, according to Audi.
BMW will soon require dealers to hire young, tech-savvy employees to handle questions about its vehicles on the showroom floor.
The BMW Genius Everywhere program is being launched across Europe after a trial at several large dealership groups in the UK last year. A pilot program in the United States will begin later this year in several stores and will be rolled out nationwide by early 2014.
The program has specially trained employees -- many of them college students -- patrolling dealerships with iPads in hand. The BMW "Geniuses" will be available to inform shoppers about vehicles and features, but they will not sell cars.
The approach is similar to the Genius Bar program in every Apple outlet, where product explainers answer questions and give free tech support. Cadillac and Lexus have similar programs in their U.S. dealerships. Audi is also hoping some of its Audi City store innovations will filter down.
"We looking at ways of rolling similar solutions out more widely, and making them cost-effective," Pearson said. First, however, the firm will launch more of the Audi City showrooms in places such as Berlin, Shanghai, Paris, Rome, Moscow and New York.
However the future of these digital brand centers is unlikely to extend beyond a handful of prestigious locations, said IHS Automotive senior analyst Tim Urquhart. "I see the prospects for them being extremely limited," he said. "If you're serious about buying a high-end car, I imagine you would want to test drive it in the flesh."
Diana T. Kurylko contributed