“Ready for my order, Mr. Audi dealer?
“I’d like the A5 Coupe with a 6-speed manual transmission and all-wheel drive. Do that in Scuba Blue metallic on the outside, Velvet Beige inside. No, wait. You know what? Make that Chestnut Brown inside.
“I’ll try the Dark Brown Walnut Wood inlay, too. Give me four of those 10-spoke wheels. Plus the rear spoiler. How much is Nav-Plus? Two grand? Can you throw that in for free? Whatever, I guess I’ll take it.
“So where on the lot is my car?”
Sorry Charlie. The chances of finding a spec’d-out car like that on a dealer lot are about as good as rolling seven seven times in a row.
Letting customers pick automotive offerings like they’re ordering off an Applebee’s menu statistically creates a dizzying number of configuration possibilities. More than dealers can realistically stock, unless their inventory-storage area is the size of an airport parking lot and Donald Trump is covering their floor-planning costs.
Audi believes it has a viable virtual-reality option. A shopper straps on a VR headset with goggles. Wearing it may look dorky, but through the wonderful world of gee-whiz technology it showcases the brand’s full lineup and all possible equipment combinations.
Sounds like a plan. But potential impediments loom. One of them is human behavior. Will Audi customers wear those contraptions in the middle of a dealership? (“Mommy, what’s that man have on his head?”)
And forget about the risk of mussed hair. Does someone really want to leave the reality of a dealership to go on a virtual-reality inventory safari? A part of the modern dealership sales process may become selling a customer on the benefits of wearing a VR headset.
Audi bills it as taking car shopping to a new level, describing it as “almost life-like” with 3-D images and sound effects. Customers can mix and match packages, sit behind the wheel, check out trunk space and do a 360-degree walk-around without getting up.
The headset comes with headphones, so wearers can hear sounds from the VR shopping trip as well as from a salesperson dutifully sitting next to you. (A Chester Chatterbox could become a distraction. Where’s the mute button?)
A camera tracks the movement of the user’s head, and the system adapts the image displayed accordingly. Yes, you are there. But, again, do you want to be?
Americans Want Their Vehicles – Now
Then there’s the issue of product delivery. The technology is partly intended to allow dealers to carry leaner inventories. But eventually they must cough up a real car. American car consumers tend to want immediate gratification there.
In Europe, where Audi is headquartered, car shoppers are more patient. They place their orders at dealerships. Weeks later, the car comes in and the order is filled.
But typical American car shoppers show no such patience even though they are buying a big-ticket item with an average transaction price of about $32,000. Once they’ve decided, they want it now.
At least they’re flexible. As Mike Jackson, CEO of dealership chain AutoNation once noted: “Every day in America, thousands of people go to a dealership planning to buy a white car and end up driving away in a black car.”
Or: If I can’t always get what I want, I’ll take that one instead.
We’re at a nascent stage of VR technology, so it’s easy to scoff at the early arrivals. Such equipment could become so awesome as to really take you to another world.
And it’s hard to predict human behavior. Will shoppers actually use this stuff, hopeful predictions aside? If some futurists of the 1950s were right, every movie-goer today would be wearing 3-D glasses.
Yet, dealerships more and more are becoming testing grounds for visual technology.
In addition to Audi’s VR headset, recently released products include CreditMiner’s DealerAR, billed as the first augmented-reality solution that allows a 4-D-rotation screen view not only of vehicles, but also of F&I products.
A customer can view a vehicle at any angle, including the undercarriage. F&I managers can use the device to show optional services and compare aftermarket products.
“The experience brings deep interaction with the consumer, allowing for visual explanations that go far beyond static photos,” says Don O’Neill, CreditMiner’s general manager.
We’ll see. Don’t necessarily bet against virtual reality at the dealership or any other place of commerce. Humans are visual beings with a large chunk of their brain dedicated to sight and the mental processing that goes with it.
But human wiring also includes a sense of reluctance to do things we don’t want to do. In one way, that’s a survival skill. In another, it’s plain old human stubbornness to try something new.