Salespeople commonly using virtual reality and other high-tech tools to interact with shoppers in the showroom might be years down the road. But consumer expectations poised to shape the car dealerships of the future are developing today.
Fueled by a desire for more convenience and new ways to be empowered when making purchases, a wave of younger, tech-savvy consumers is forcing companies to rethink how they engage retail customers.
"It's consumer empowerment through various tech tools to be able to find a transparency about a brand and a product," said Jody Turner, culture and trends expert from CultureofFuture.com. "If the company doesn't offer it, the consumer will find it, particularly in the younger generation."
Turner, who has consulted for companies such as Apple, BMW and Adidas, said these new-generation consumers aren't necessarily driven by brand loyalty as much as behavioral loyalty.
"They'll mix things up, and the behavior today is really about how [companies] are serving people, serving the world," she said. "What's your mission? How are you accomplishing it? Are you authentic? And, of course, they have the tech and creative social media skills to be able to find out everything they need to find out."
The cultural shift in retail buying behavior is also being influenced by the growing number of virtual assistant options and consumers' eagerness to find new ways to use the technology to get information. According to a trends study in 2018 by Ericsson Consumer and Industry Lab, 49 percent of the roughly 5,000 people surveyed who use virtual assistants said they would like to automate the restocking of everyday household items using the technology. Another study by Ericsson, drawn from the same pool of early adapters, found that 48 percent of those who use smartphones would like a virtual assistant to help them narrow their selections when shopping, paving the way for more consumer interest in technology such as artificial intelligence and VR.
"When it comes to retail, consumers are expecting more and more support, so virtual assistants will become much more active in participating in this process, both when it comes to the automated side of shopping, but also on the aspirational side of shopping, which includes everything from fashion to cars," said Michael Bjorn, who authored the Ericsson trends reports.
Vehicle brands such as Lincoln, Infiniti and Lexus have used immersive technology tools in showrooms to better connect with younger customers. But trend experts contend that simply arming salespeople with tablets and other high-tech gadgets is not enough to close the deal with these new-gen consumers.
"You have to do everything today, 360-degree service," Turner said. "When people come in, it has to have elements of community engagement. It's not really about the big box [environment]. It's really about the more intimate community building experiences."
Turner said simple things such as a video on an iPad that gives consumers insight on the vehicle designer can help engage these younger consumers at the retail level.
"If you want to open up your vista, open up to new clients, open up to ways of communicating with your constituency," Turner said. "The experiences that people feel for your product have to bring a feeling of transformation, that they understand you and that you are moving them forward."
Mario Carrasco, co-founder of ThinkNow, a culture and trends insight agency, said it is also important for dealerships to understand the diversity and lifestyle touch points that drive younger buyers.
"Understanding those cultural nuances will help create a deeper connection between a sales representative and a younger, diverse consumer," Carrasco said.
Automotive analyst Roger Lanctot of Strategy Analytics said dealerships need to be more personally in tune with the transportation needs of new-gen car buyers and work collectively to create more innovative business models that cater to those consumers, whether it involves buying a new car or servicing a vehicle. He said the growing popularity of mobility options such as car-sharing requires dealers to think much differently than they have.
"As a group, [dealers] have to recognize, 'OK, this is an opportunity … and this is how it could work,' " Lanctot said. "That's what's missing from the market."
Regardless of the business model or the technology, Carrasco said it's important to make decision-making as seamless as possible for new-gen consumers. "People don't want to walk around in a lot with 100 different cars and open every single car," he said. "They want to be able to customize it and order it, without necessarily having to talk to somebody. It's about less friction. It's not necessarily about price."