The young couple from Chicago left the Audi dealership disappointed. They wanted an A4 but the car was out of stock and they couldn't order it. Still, the dealership team proudly recounts the tale. Why? Because the dealership wasn't in Chicago, it was in London, and because the couple were overwhelmed by the dealership's showroom technology. The dealership, Audi City in Mayfair, central London, showcases a revolutionary new way for Volkswagen's premium brand to sell not just cars but the brand itself.
Since the dealership opened in 2012, the small store has created such a buzz that it has joined London institutions such as the Ritz Hotel and the Fortnum & Mason food store as stops for guided tours. "Tomorrow we've got three groups of 30 coming in," says Kasuni Vitharana, head of the dealership's specialist information team. "We don’t mind the tourist groups, but we do appreciate a bit of notice."
The dealership's star attractions are the four so-called powerwalls -- nearly floor-to-ceiling screens that display a customer’s chosen car. The powerwalls, created from 36 backlit LED display screens almost seamlessly joined together, are linked to high-definition touchscreens mounted on tables where cars can be configured. Consumers choose the model, color, engine and other specifications on the table, then swipe the screen to send the completed car to the wall. There they can spin it around, look inside, open the doors and trunk and even watch it drive off, complete with authentic engine noises. As with the latest iPad interaction, commands are instantly and smoothly relayed. The effect is mesmerizing. Audi City London also has three so-called private customer lodges in the basement.
To inform, not sell
Vitharana’s eight-member specialist team operates like BMW’s Apple-inspired product Geniuses. Using iPads, they are there to inform and explain, but not to sell. “We help customers build the car the way they like it,” she says. “It could be a kid building a dream car. It could be a customer. It doesn’t matter.” Other Audi City stores have since opened in Beijing and Berlin, and one is due to open this year in Moscow. The location of each store is crucial, says Horst Hanschur, Audi’s head of global network strategy. Each store must be in a central luxury shopping area popular with local people and tourists. “We want to go where our customers are,” Hanschur says. “Where they are in a good mood, where they want to shop, and when the wife and kids are there, too.”
Audi is not the only premium automotive marque opening brand-building storefronts. BMW has just opened its second Brand Store in Brussels, two years after the first one opened along Paris’ famous Avenue George V, just around the corner from the Champs-Elysees avenue. Mercedes-Benz has similar outlets in 20 cities, including Tokyo and Milan. Mercedes said in March at the Geneva auto show that it plans to open 20 more by 2020. But so far none has the technology reach of Audi City.
Dealers who find the perfect location for an Audi City are likely to be rewarded, says IHS Automotive senior analyst Tim Urquhart. “There is no doubt the format is an attractive and relatively cost-effective option for urban locations,” he said, “especially if you’re trying to attract younger Gen Y-style customers.”