I just returned from London, where I gave a keynote presentation on Flip the Funnel and how customer service and customer experience will become the key strategic
differentiator in an increasingly commoditized world.
The next day, I witnessed complete validation of this hypothesis.
As I was walking down Piccadilly, I passed an Audi showroom unlike any I had seen before. In fact, it’s the first concept store of its kind for the brand in the world. The showroom was exceptionally clean, with one or two models on the white floor. No desks. No papers. No chairs. Several color coordinated, well-dressed salespeople. Several interactive kiosks. And wall-to-wall giant synchronized TV screens.
I proceeded to customize my swanky new S5 convertible using the interactive kiosks and with an effortless swipe, I was able to project my configured car onto the big screen. I was also able to swivel the car using gestures on the kiosk, but I was just get started.
Using Microsoft’s Kinect technology, I was able to use my body as a joystick or mouse. I could take down the roof and watch it roll back in real time. I watched the car drive off and come back to rest with surround sound emulating the actual sounds of the car. I was truly surrounded by a realistic experience of what it might feel like to drive an Audi S5 Convertible.
There were other gadgets, bells and whistles, like the ability to save my session to a USB and whenever I returned, pick up where I left off.
The experience was terrific, but what really blew me away was the epiphany that bricks-and-mortar stores were not dead, but alive and kicking. They were about to go through an incredible revival or even renaissance.
There were those who once said (and I’m probably one of them) that bricks-and-mortar stores were endangered species, and that everyone would shift to online shopping, customization and commerce. There were also those who said (I was not one of them) that no one would ever move to digital channels to purchase things like clothing, homes or cars.
As it turns out, they were both wrong.
What I witnessed in this London showroom was the future of retail: a holistic, immersive physical digital experience. One in which human beings still played a key role. The best of all worlds.
In that moment, I realized that purchasing cars online is not the optimal experience. It just isn’t possible to get an accurate or lifelike feeling of what it must be like to drive an Audi S5. The most accurate experience would come from actually driving one — a test drive — but what I witnessed was pretty damn close.
I believe the future of bricks-and-mortar stores is a bright one if – and only if – it is anchored around a core digital experience and supported by humans.
Not only for traditional brands, but pure plays as well. For example, I expect to see an Amazon.com store in the near future; one without a single piece of merchandise in it. Why would you need a book, when everything can be swiped, synced and swooshed into your Kindle? I expect Barnes & Noble to be out of business if they cannot figure out a way — quickly — to emulate the Audi showroom and in the process, get rid of as many dust-gathering books (and space) as possible.
People might continue to window show online using their screens as nose warmers, but when they want to actually buy, there’s a lot to be said for getting off their rear ends and making the physical commitment to get into a store.
It’s back to the future, baby. With one hell of an ironic twist.
Just one question: impressive as they are, were the "bells and whistles" really necessary? Would it have been equally satisfying as a consumer to walk into a showroom with actual cars, so I can see, feel, touch what it might be like to own one rather than "imagining" it?
There were cars in the showroom, but it wasn't bursting at the seams and built around a sales-focused desk-heavy scenario.
The relative comparison is less "this showroom" vs "the showroom of the past" and more versus the online equivalent as a benchmark of change and innovation.
I don't understand your revelation here. Its obvious that "actual" stores have a role and "virtual" ones do also, and people have been working at the intersection of the two for years. And where is the "ironic twist" you talk of?
@Jacob - Whilst it might be obvious that "actual" stores have a role, how many companies are doing a good show at figuring it out and more importantly, executing against it? Just ask Borders.
My point was that the future of bricks 'n mortar stores (and putting it slightly differently, if they don't this...they might not have a future) is to in essence create an all-digital experience inside.
The corollary is that online stores may in fact fade because they just cannot replicate the tactile physical experience (at least not today)
That's the twist I suppose...going backwards to move forwards.
...but of course maybe it's not a revelation to you. Unfortunately, revelations are not necessarily universal. I actually have many revelations and epiphanies, but it could just be the drugs talking
But did you actually buy a car? I bet not.
Years ago, I lived in a town with an outstanding camera store, with salespeople who actually understood photography and could give you great advice on cameras, film, processing, etc. Unfortunately, about 30 miles away, there was a discounter, with people who knew nothing about photography and didn't care to give you any of their time unless you were buying. So, people went to the first store to "research" their purchases and to the second one to "pay" for them. Guess which store flourished. THAT is the problem the "bricks-and-mortar stores" face. It will not be solved with interactive displays, however good they might be.
Ecommerce is clearly limited by its lack of brick & mortar stores. Whether your experience in the UK represents the future or not, the fundamental strategy for retailers has to be to leverage their key advantage (stores) while also leveraging their new power to be in all the channels. Interestingly, this strategy gives retailers far more power than Amazon's limitation to the net. Amazon thrives by poaching small pieces of the business of thousands of retailers. I doubt that will change - except in those unique cases where the online channel offers dramatic shopping advantage without limitations (e.g. music & books).
@Tim - good points; I think like the Tesla "store", it's less about a showroom or dealership and more about promoting a really powerful brand experience. Who's to say that the end result isn't someone going to Audi's website in this case - and paying a premium - for the vehicle. And no, I didn't buy one, because I already own (lease) one :)
@Doug - I still think the interesting play here is whether B&N goes "physical digital" before Amazon.com (or visa versa)
@Joseph - as a specialist in tools and hardware/DIY via retail... Agreed on the books/music market. Outside those superbly fitted markets to online, all Amazon does is poach a bit of business. But you really can't sell most (not all) tools solely online. Consumers have far too high a need to touch feel. And, we benefit tremendously from reverse showrooming - where consumers sort out the basic market online, but prefer to buy at brick and mortar. Amazon does a brilliant job preparing people to buy our products in store. :-)