Can Cyber Stores Save the High Street?

by Kate Enright

In July of this year Audi launched their first Cyber Store. The difference between this and a regular showroom? Well, the lack of any cars.  Audi City is a “digital dealership”, where virtual cars are displayed on screens on the walls. Consumers then simply walk in and browse the models using interactive panels controlled by touchless gestures or footsteps. One-on-one touchscreens then allow users to add, remove and change their selected model’s specifications and essentially build their own dream car in front of their eyes.

Audi City

Audi City

For example, if I want an A4 with a matte-black finish and red leather interior, with just a simple gesture based interaction, there it is, on a high definition 70 inch screen, which Audi call a “power wall”. I can then decide on all the important details like engine size, interior extras etc. and then and watch it drive along the screen seeing my creation in action on the power wall.

All over this amazingly sharp and clean space there’s an array of other engaging screens from touch to gesture based. These contain loads of Audi info along with videos, images and media content to keep people engaged. Anything that can be viewed on the smaller touch screens can then be “swiped” onto the power walls for larger viewing.

Audi City London interior

Once visitors have finished customising a car in the tailored downstairs customisation room they can save the design to a USB key for use in any other cyber store around the world – just in case their not quite ready to part with the cash. If they do make the purchase, the cars delivery time from creation to the door is only 12 weeks.

So what are Audi trying to achieve going in this all-digital retail direction? Well, they believe that this is the way that the floundering car sales market can be saved. They see cyber stores as the future of retail in this industry, and they may just be right. For one, think of the square footage and transport that can be saved on not having to house a range of cars. Also, a combination of the clever psychological effects of the technology, top-class customer service, and the sheer novelty is sure to mean a vast increase in sales over time.

Customer Service

Store staff are each equipped with an iPad and use these to help individual consumers with their experience. Customers are guided upon entry through each step of the process and shown simply how to use each piece of technology. This is vital. I recently attended a talk on self-service technology in retail environments during which the speaker gave examples of where stores paid huge sums for intelligent, interactive screens and paypoints online to leave them un-manned and out of the way. The customers were daunted by the technology and opted not to use it, essentially meaning that the money was wasted. Therefore, salespeople within a cyber store environment such as Audi City are extremely important. Visitors cannot feel daunted or intimidated by the digital surroundings and much be shown what to do. Audi have thought of this and are ahead of the game with highly trained, compassionate staff on the floor.

The Psychology

The experience from there is one that promotes what is essentially impulse buying. They have seen that it promotes much swifter purchases than are found in a regular car show room. This is down to the setup. If people have the option to create their own dream car and see it in front of their eyes, what are the chances that they will let that go? The simplicity of the design, the ordering and the delivery are extremely encouraging for customers and after being lured in by the exciting concept they are much more likely to follow the process through. Not alone this but they are much more likely to add extras. If it is as simple as a touch or swipe, why not?  The overall experience is new, exciting and powerful and the process is so engaging for consumers.

Audi are by no means alone in this either. There have been a number of physical store locations going digital of late. House of Fraser is a good example. They opened the world’s first digital-only store in Aberdeen, in October 2011. The store held no stock at all, but instead offered customers an engaging brand experience, with iPads, free coffee and comfortable sofas all combined with a convenient local service without the presence of a full physical store. Customers placed orders via the iPads, for next -day collection service from the store. There customers could try on the products in the fitting rooms before completing the transaction.

House of Fraser Digital Store

House of Fraser Digital Store

And it’s not just physical stores going digital, online giants such as Amazon, Ebay and Google have been discussing opening physical stores throughout 2012. In fact, Ebay are set to open a social media pop-up store this weekend in Covent Garden which will operate for three days from Friday until Sunday December 2. EBay forecasted that December 2 will be the busiest online shopping day of the year, and say that up to 30% of the most popular Christmas products are expected to be bought via a smartphone. The store therefore, will work in a social recommendation capacity displaying in-store screens with live streams from social media networks providing details of what products people are recommending from sites including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so shoppers can get an idea of the top products to buy this Christmas aligned with eBay’s product offer. This extremely clever use of social data along with price comparison is cutting edge in terms of moving it to an interactive physical space like this.

Ebay Pop up Store

Ebay Pop up Store


And then their’s Amazon who’s Chief Exec Jeff Bezos was quoted this month as saying: “We want to do something that is unique’ly Amazon. If we can find that idea – and we haven’t found it yet – but if we can find that idea, we would love to open physical stores.” So it looks like they want a game changer and a physical store could be just the ticket.”

For Google who are also considering the possibility, it seems like an opportunity not to be missed. Apple stores have been an overwhelming success for the company on all counts and ecpecialy in iPad sales. The key factor for Google at the moment is to allow people to get a hands-on look at their latest hardware and the platform for the likes of Nexus range, and if they’re going to compete with iPad sales, they’ll need to get trained staff giving them in-store tutorials on how the user experience is and, well, make them seem sexier in the eyes if the consumer! The Apple store experience is a great model.

So there you have it. As the world changes, people are looking at solutions for improving sales in spaces that were up to now unexplored. Would you venture into a store with stock? Can you see the benefits? At Von Bismark we’re pretty sure this is the way forward and we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for more.