If there were ever a retail model ripe for disruption, it’s the humble car dealer. And Audi thinks it has the answer with Audi City.
The goal is to bring some of the comfort, convenience and customization you’d get from an online car configurator, but with the added convenience of an informative, low-pressure, carbon-based sales rep and a range of new technologies to bring your ride to life – virtually – before you sign on the dotted line.
Think of it as the Apple Store for Audis; smaller, lighter, more scalable, and infinitely more interactive. And Audi is betting big on the concept, with plans to erect 20 more stores worldwide in the next three years.
The first Audi City opened its doors earlier today in London, right down the way from Piccadilly Circus and a stone’s throw from the Summer Olympics campus. Just like BMW’s new i store in the heart of the United Kingdom, the timing isn’t entirely coincidental. And neither is Audi’s focus beyond traditional products and services.
Similar to Ford and BMW’s recent pronouncements, Audi is looking to evolve its business model beyond the car and into the world of “mobility provider.” The Audi Stores are a way to begin laying out that infrastructure as it shifts its focus.
Unlike traditional dealerships that take up thousands of square feet and acres of land, Audi City is more akin to the high-end retailer you’d find on Main Street or an open-air mall.
There may be a full-size vehicle parked inside, but the real action happens on the capacitive touchscreens mounted ahead of the massive high-res displays. Shoppers can select a vehicle and trim level, and go through tens of millions of possible permutations – from color to interior stitching – all rendered in real time and shown at a 1:1 scale.
“With Audi City,” says Peter Schwarzenbauer, board member for Audi Marketing and Sales, “we are creating a one-stop-shop for experiencing our brand.”
But while the small footprint lends itself well to urban environments, the European market is markedly different from what American consumers expect from a dealer.
The idea of walking into a dealership and driving out with a new car the same day is foreign to buyers outside the United States. Most European consumers spec their vehicles in advance, choosing from a lengthy list of dealer options before delivery weeks or months later. If you’ve ever been bowled over by the granular level of detail on an Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Volkswagen options list, that’s why. The model works in Europe but has never caught on in the States, causing volume sellers like VW to significantly pare down and simplify their spec sheets.
So what about test drives? According to the automaker, “every Audi City is also connected to an Audi dealership,” so evaluation vehicles should be close by and service would still be handled through traditional dealers.
Audi City outlets will also form the backbone of the automaker’s alternative powertrain retailers, with information and education about its etron line of electric vehicles. The program will encompass both the R8 etron supercar, due out late next year or in early 2014, as well as Audi’s plans to offer a plug-in hybrid alongside its existing diesel and gas-electric models.
More lofty is Audi’s vision of these new retailers as next-generation community centers, playing host to round-table discussions and art exhibits, and rented out after-hours to community groups and local bohemians. Not a bad way to recoup the costs of high-end real-estate in dense and expensive urban areas.
Photos: Audi AG