The New ’Storytailers’
Why there’s a bright future for car dealerships: with a little less ‘e’ and a lot more ‘experience’.
The entire point of a retail store should be to surprise us with experiences we can’t get from our screens.
So why are some sectors falling into the trap of ‘reinventing’ themselves into digital shop windows and distribution hubs - rather than capitalising on the one thing that physical retail can do: remind us that in the real world, it’s places with products we fall in love with.
Having spent a few years around automotive brands and their retailers and distributors - and so armed with a reasonable grasp of the laws of physics and chemistry that shape it, with all its complexities and borders - there’s always the nagging sense that thing’s aren’t right at the important end of the production line, i.e. the dealership.
It also feels (having talked about it often enough) that many (but not everyone) in the industry recognises this but are held there, in a state of not quite suspended animation by a strange inertia; one that constantly defeats its challenges.
The problem is though, with these challenges seeming endlessly creeping (or rather, racing) around every corner it’s all causing a great deal of anxiety.
And the one thing anxiety provokes in businesses is usually lots and lots of tactical cross winds and not enough strategy.
This seems to be manifesting itself most with a strain of automotive FOMO and that’s understandable with a business model that’s been around as long as its product (and a Century or so certainly is long enough for some good and bad habits to have hardened).
It’s easy to overlook tried and tested when novelty’s in town.
But it’s not necessarily good.
Because when you look at the market ‘disruptors’, what I find isn’t all that different a business model (unless I’ve really missed something?). The new automotive brands still have showrooms and workshops.
A difference in a product’s motive power isn’t all that much of a difference - four wheels, engine, steering wheel, looks like a car.
‘New age’ automotive retailers still have showrooms and workshops, they’re just further apart. Or rather, the workshops have stayed put and the shop’s moved back into town.
The marketing angle’s on (more or less) instant gratification (our digital paradigm at work) build around a distribution model. All good, if a little depersonalised, which might make sense for commodity purchasing. But cars? While still a necessity for most, buying a new one’s still a luxury. I’m not sure all automotive manufacturers are quite ready to see their products as just commodities.
Novelty is always a distraction, but for all the talk of new market entrants and re-inventors, the fact is there’s already a great infrastructure in place. And having seen some of the digital sectors bait-and-switch take-over of channels and customers, wouldn’t it be a shame (not to mention a waste) if the same situation overcame the automotive retail networks?
The challenges are coming (and succeeding, at least for share of mind - for now) because the usual ’experience’ of a visit to a dealership’s such an easy target to aim at. Especially when the cliche’s are rolled out and nothing works quite so powerfully as one of those, however much we all hate them.
So why aren’t the car retail networks taking greater advantage of what they’ve had and still own? It may be a little inconvenient to admit, but the structure of providing sales and service to car buyers and owners (users, borrowers, whichever) is actually quite robust.
It’s an ‘experience’ - and not just the ‘sales and service process’ experience offered - that’s almost entirely absent. And by that I mean an ‘experience’, not an ‘expected that’ which will positively affect how we feel about the products we’re here to fall for and then chose to buy from this retailer.
Let’s take the later, and start with the bit that’s normally at the ‘end’ of the story, ‘service’.
Those of us (agency side) that actually run cars out of necessity, and who are the majority with that mixed blessing, need some place reasonably convenient to have the thing taken care of. A ‘garage’ operation does a great job of that and as it’’s a business model that makes sense (and money), it also makes sense that it’s part of a dealership,
The question here is, given the value of an owner, why isn’t ‘back of house’ as much a part of the retail experience as the front?
Some retailers get this, with greater integration, but the workshops are pretty much in the sheds at the back because of the way ‘dealerships’ are still ‘designed’, operationally-first and customer second. What if all the ‘owners’ amenities were at the front and centre, on the ground floor, rather than the showroom?
The emerging patters of identity architecture’s also encouraging, providing more appropriate surroundings for visitors and staffers. But that’s tending towards spectacle based on digital mediation - on physics - rather than the physical.
For the selling or buying part, let’s get back to why your visitor’s here (remember, the bit of the product they can’t get from on-screen?).
The off-screen experience could be far more uplifting if you were to travel up to a showroom, to a showroom that’s not an expensively fitted out stockroom, but actually an experience worth travelling for (we’ve made the effort for you)?
The last thing a showroom needs are more screens.
Sure, let’s be smart with tech but make it work as an invisible supporting role where it’s process. Where it’s augmenting the brand and product’s story (storytailing), then sure there’s call but don’t overlook one key trend: that being offered a ‘well-thumbed’ magazine’s not a nice experience, and our devices are very personal. Being offered someone else’s to use just doesn’t feel right and increasingly we’re not using instore touch screens. Yuk, sticky.
The product’s the thing we’re here for, so we should really be concentrating all our efforts on having the best dressed cars we can.
Framing the views to them as we approach is good.
What if all the ‘new’ cars were on the first floor? What if traveling to the showroom included a trip upstairs? In an instant, you’re literally and metaphorically on a high. No more worrying about the showroom windows being blocked by a rank of used cars. And the elevated position would make for a great outlook.
I know this isn’t exactly a blinding idea, some brands already do this but what tends to happen is that the showroom floor becomes the stockroom floor with offices and a lounge - undermining and blowing the opportunity.
Glaze the roof and you bring the cars on show closer to the elements, and there’s nothing like daylight to showoff a new car.
Think about what we see out of the windows when we’re sat in, even more so.
Make the cars turn towards us as we approach and ‘switch on’ to greet us.
Create distinctive ‘sets’ to present the product in, complete with finishes and fixtures that accentuate the individuality that a product offers.
Do anything that fights uniformity when it comes to a brand’s product properties and performance.
For all the AR, VR, eye-tracking and interacting there’s not really a substitute for some RW* (sorry, *Real World) exhibitionism when it comes to cars.
There’s a bright future for really ‘affective’ physical Storytailing, and an especially brighter one that’s an off-screen experience which you can only get first hand. Make the most of that and let’s get everyone talking about the visit to the car dealer that doesn’t end up with the usual gags.
Header image - Javier Molina / UnSplash