A Touching Way to Sell Vehicles

At the 2003 NBA draft, Cleveland picked LeBron James, Denver picked Carmelo Anthony and half a dozen young and new millionaires picked out their new BMWs at touch-screen kiosks in their New York hotels.

At the 2003 NBA draft, Cleveland picked LeBron James, Denver picked Carmelo Anthony and half a dozen young and new millionaires picked out their new BMWs at touch-screen kiosks in their New York hotels.

It was one of many victories for car-sales kiosks that have lead to the increased use of the devices to help dealers sell more vehicles.

Bob Plante remembers the BMW kiosk promotion well. He's a contractor who has masterminded BMW kiosk promotions for five years. Plante designed the portable kiosks used at the 2003 draft.

The units are collapsible, with sleek, convex faces that earned them the moniker “surfboards” around Plante's office. They're networked via cellular signal. The units' front panels can be swapped for re-branding to different model autos or marketing campaigns.

The kiosks paid for themselves in their first campaign, promoting the new (at that time) BMW X3 SUV.

“We put them in locations that matched the demographic of the buyers,” Plante says. “For the X3, we put them in sporting goods stores and fitness centers. And for every kiosk put out we sold two cars.”

At the same time, BMW installed large armoire-style kiosks in dealership showrooms where customers could lounge luxuriously while considering the data and options available for their prospective purchase.

By this time, another auto maker already had a history of high-tech success.

In late 2001, Bountiful Mazda in Bountiful, Utah was opening a new showroom and incorporating a new brand concept: the Retail Revolution.

Instead of a traditional showroom floor filled with lots of vehicles, the Retail Revolution facility features some vehicles and several touch-screen kiosk-like PC stations at which customers can research whichever featured model is in front of them, other Mazda autos or even browse the Web to review competing brands. In down times, the kiosks play video loops showcasing Mazda automobiles.

“Basically (customers) do all their homework here at the dealership, rather than go home and do it,” says Bountiful Mazda President Mike MacDonald. “It was our goal to keep the customer here and help them do their research and give them the ability to do their research at the dealership.”

MacDonald says the success of the digitally enabled showroom is obvious in his dealership's sales performance.

“We are three times the national average for market penetration,” he says. “We register almost three times as many vehicles as a normal Mazda store. We're at 9% for percent of registration. The nation is at 3.97%.”

The results resonate with Mazda corporate as well, which has upgraded 56 dealers to the Revolution model.

James O'Sullivan, president and CEO of Mazda North American Operations, says there are 44 more Revolution dealerships in the works and projects a total of 200 in five years.

The most recent is a 20,000-sq.-ft. facility for Jeff Sikes Mazda in Huntsville, AL. It cost $2 million.

Brian Ardinger, vice president of business development for Nanonation Inc., the developer for Mazda's Revolution showroom technology, says many value propositions culminate in the rising sales, including multimedia's ability to tell and illustrate stories more effectively than static brochures.

“A kiosk can also give a more objective information source than a sales person, at least in the mind of the customer,” Ardinger says. “The ability to change content as needed, for new models and leasing programs, helps drive relevancy in the dealership.

“And it is also important to reach a younger demographic that's used to interacting with technology.”

As Mazda and BMW have developed their kiosk sales-aid programs, they've both found a common truth: success requires more than plopping a cool computer in front of a customer.

Mazda, when it opens a new Revolution showroom, puts the sales force through classes to actually change the dealership's culture. For example, they learn not to disturb customers while they interact with the kiosks.

What's more, both companies persistently upgrade their software. What started as a three-day-a-week consulting job for Plante is now a full-time endeavor to produce digital content for BMW's kiosks, as well as Web and other marketing channels.

“It has a technology component. It has a hardware component. Then, you have a production component which most people overlook,” Plante says. “You can't just put Web material on there because it's a kiosk. People come up to it and it's a way different experience than the Web.

“Video works real well, but you can't just slap DVD type video on there. It has to be produced for that medium because it's in a very busy, distracting environment. You've got to give them the information short and quick and it's got to provide value.”

Alex Richardson, president of The Self-Service and Kiosk Assn., knows all about grabbing attention with kiosk content. He founded Netkey, one of the original self-service software developers.

He characterizes kiosks as a tool to aid sales staff, and points to dealerships' high sales staff turnover rates as proof that there are plenty of green salesmen who need the info handy.

“While in the showroom, the consumers want to review the features of the car at the kiosk and configure features and to compare with other competitor cars,” Richardson says. “The retail experience keeps the buyer focused on the shopping experience.”

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