Remember back in, like, 2005, when everyone thought we were as a consumer species going to switch to doing all our shopping online and never again set foot in a retail establishment? The Apple (AAPL) Store changed all that. As it turns out, hands on makes all the difference when you're buying shiny, new, tech-y things. This concept has been extremely influential. And hasn't been lost on car companies.
A pleasant experience? How shocking!
The last time anyone seriously attempted to revamp the auto-buying experience, it was with General Motors' (GM) now-departed Saturn brand. In retrospect, tidy, clean Saturn dealerships -- with their red-polo-shirted salespeople no-haggle policies, and cult-like customer devotion -- look like an Apple Store progenitor.
Mind you, not everyone enjoys the Apple Store experience. But the places are usually packed with potential customers, getting some finger time with the latest iPad or iPhone -- or having "Genius" employees solve technical problems -- so it's hard to argue with the execution. Plus, they make great, controlled locations for media events. Watch those lines form later this year when the iPhone 5 finally hits!
So we shouldn't be surprised that carmakers, which also sell shiny new things made of glass and metal that music (can) come out of, would be influenced by the Apple Stores.
Two tiers become one
Car dealerships have a bad rap as grim realms of discomfort dropped down in the middle of parking lots. But this isn't uniformly true. Top-tier Japanese luxury car dealerships have been quite pleasant places for a while. But if you're shopping for a mass-market brand, something like a Chevy or a Dodge, you're not going to expect leather couches and cappuccino machines.
However, that's all changing. This is from Consumerist:
Chrysler says its dealers have spent around $400 million in recent years to spruce up their digs. And as Chrysler sets to roll out the first Fiat dealerships in the U.S., it's going even further in changing its image. Showrooms, complete with espresso bars, will be called "studios," sales reps are "design specialists" and sales managers are "studio directors."Oo la la! Actually, this is part of a larger retail trend -- that of the values of the high-end being spread across all sales channels. People want luxury features in even relatively modest cars now. So it's understandable that they'd want luxury amenities, and the upscale treatment, in the place where the big purchase is taking place. Just check out Chrysler's Motor Village (right), an automotive emporium that opened near Downtown L.A. last year.
It's about time!
There's been some concern in car-dealer circles for a while that consumers will begin to demand more direct, technologically driven sales options in the future. If you can deeply research vehicles on the Web, why would you need to come down to the showroom?
If you know what you want, a few clicks and some forms are all that should be needed to complete the sale and have your brand new car shipped to a pickup location. People buy computers like this, right?
Well, cars aren't computers -- except when you're talking about Apple computers (and devices). The affinities are clear: Apple Stores effectively are Apple dealerships.
Tesla Motors (TSLA), the maker of very expensive electric sports cars, recognized this early on. I remember attending the opening of Tesla's first "store" in L.A. and being told by CEO Elon Musk that the Apple Store was the explicit model his company was emulating.
Now the rest of the auto industry is catching on. Because very few people love car dealerships, as important as they are to the business. It's high time that problem was fixed.