The arrival of electric vehicles -- and the small, independent startups that will produce and sell some of them -- has the industry buzzing once again about "reinventing retail."
This time it's because EVs are expected to create a new kind of customer experience that may lead to a different retail business model. Of course, history shows that terms such as "retail revolution" are often just catchphrases for bypassing the dealer.
The retail strategies of the new EV makers are just taking shape, and there are interesting ideas afoot. Some plan traditional franchise networks; others are opting for factory-owned stores. Some foresee a one-price, Saturn-style dealership combined with a glitzy, techie, Apple-style store.
Apple stores are the model for several new EV producers. Tesla Motors has even hired the guy who helped set up Apple's retail chain.
Tesla is designing factory-owned stores to fit its electric-vehicle lineup and currently has eight U.S. outlets selling its $101,500 Roadster. The company will expand the network in 2012 when the higher-volume Model S sedan arrives. But the Model S may require a change in Tesla's retail business model since company-owned stores are banned in many states.
Electric vehicles will no doubt change things at the dealership level. Service revenue may decline since EVs will deprive dealers of some of their usual business -- for oil changes, spark plug changes, radiator flushes and the like.
But electrics offer the potential of better retention of service business since customers will prefer trained technicians at dealerships. Dealerships will be required to analyze and service battery modules.
EVs can help to redefine the showroom and service experience for customers in a positive way. And customer-friendly Apple retail outlets are a remarkable and wildly successful model that deserves close attention.
Still, reinventing a franchise system that has worked exceedingly well for more than 100 years is perilous. It is critical that manufacturers of electric vehicles -- both traditional carmakers and newcomers to the auto industry -- help bring their retailers into this new world. But trying to sell EVs without franchised dealers is a risky proposition.