By now, most of us have visited an Apple store, or at least passed one at the mall. When they debuted in 2001, some analysts laughed at their spartan design and hands-off sales approach, wondering how Apple would ever make money in brick-and-mortar retail. But by 2008, Fortune magazine pointed out that on a sales-per-square-foot basis, Apple was outselling Saks, Best Buy, and even luxury goods powerhouse, Tiffany.
Now, a similarly pared-down approach to retail has come to auto showrooms, courtesy of Audi and its brand-new Audi City outpost in London.
Will it work?
What makes Audi's approach slightly different than Apple's is that in Apple stores, the full range of Apple products are displayed on sleek shelves and tables. In the Audi City showroom, however, there are only one or two Audi models on the floor -- and really, they're just there for visual appeal.
The true focus of Audi City is its huge, wall-sized display monitors, linked to tabletop workstations around the space. These allow visitors an in-person experience that's a little like the custom configurators we see on company websites, but at a 1:1 scale.
According to a company press release, Audi "now has the ability not only to present its growing model line-up – including all colours, equipment options and functions – in its entirety, but also to offer customers the chance to experience the sheer breadth of the range in full."
In other words, unlike a configurator you'd view on your laptop, you can see your potential new Audi at full size. And you can change every little detail with the swipe of a finger.
That said, Audi has left room for some tactile experiences. There are upholstery swatches and paint samples and such, so that you can see important details up close.
One thing's for sure: this is a very interesting development. Audi City isn't so much a reimagining of the traditional showroom as the debut of a new kind of space. (In much the same way that the iPad wasn't a new version of the laptop, but a new means of digesting information and entertainment.)
You see, Audi City isn't meant to serve the same function as a showroom. It's intended as an information hub, a starting point for conversations. In fact, Audi has plans to let Audi City serve wider needs, that are really more about branding than direct auto sales: "[F]ollowing close of daily business, [Audi City] will play host to readings, round-table discussions and exhibitions on issues such as urban development and mobility or on matters relating to art, culture and design."
As such, Audi City's biggest drawback may be the fact that visitors won't be able to test drive vehicles there. For that, they'll need to visit an affiliated Audi dealership nearby. Will customers lose interest in the transition? Could be.
But Audi is betting that won't happen. Why? Because Audi City encourages personal, one-on-one relationships between customers and salespeople -- or really, information providers. Shoppers may be more willing to engage Audi City staff since they're not making hard sells, and that personal relationship could make a lot of difference in the long run. Given the fear and loathing that many customers have for auto salespeople, Audi City might be a game-changer. Only time will tell.
Don't live in London? Don't worry. Audi says it plans to open a total of 20 Audi City stores around the globe by 2015. In the meantime, have a look at this video walkthrough:
As a car customer, does this seem like a good way to shop? Is it something you might enjoy, even after the novelty wears off? Drop us a line, or leave a note in the comments below.