LONDON -- Audi has opened the second of 20 planned digital showrooms designed to impress urban customers with an interactive experience well beyond the standard dealership fare of brochures and a cup of coffee.
Audi City in Beijing follows last year's opening of the inaugural London showroom and keeps to the same format by letting customers view configured cars on floor-to-ceiling screens but reducing traditional dealer functions such as the test drive.
Similar stores are being rolled out by Audi's two biggest rivals in the premium sector. Last year BMW opened its first "Brand Store" on an upscale Paris shopping street and says it will announce others this year.
And last September Mercedes-Benz opened its first so-called Visionary Store in a shopping arcade in central Milan, focusing on the new A class.
By locating in prestigious high-traffic locations, the automakers aim to introduce potential customers to the brand rather than give them the hard sell. "They're taking pressure off the whole buying process," a BMW spokeswoman told Automotive News Europe.
Part of the appeal is the wow factor from the digital technology. BMW spent 11 million euros, or about $14.3 million, on the Paris store, of which 3 million went toward the digital element, including five car configurators that can be viewed in 3-D.
At the Beijing Audi City, customers configure cars using screens with gesture control, and six walls with a total surface area of more than 1,000 square feet display their configured car driving in a number of settings.
Mercedes also makes use of gesture controls at its Milan store and offers car-specific apps.
Although the test drive and the other dealer functions take place elsewhere, the aim is still to sell cars, according to Audi. "The sales figures have outpaced our expectations," Gary Pearson, Audi's sales manager for the United Kingdom, says of the Audi City store in London. The Mayfair-based showroom is selling on average seven cars a week, a spokesman said.
Sales staff will send test-drive cars to the customer's home or workplace if requested.
BMW soon will require dealers to hire young tech-savvy employees to handle questions about its vehicles on the showroom floor. The "BMW Genius Everywhere" program is being launched across Europe after a trial at several large dealership groups in the United Kingdom last year. A U.S. pilot program will begin this year and will be rolled out nationwide by early 2014.
The program has specially trained employees patrolling dealerships with iPads in hand. The approach is similar to the Genius Bar program in every Apple store -- product explainers and troubleshooters who answer questions and give free technical support. Cadillac and Lexus have similar programs in U.S. dealerships.
Diana T. Kurylko contributed to this report