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IT trends spotted and checked by experts

BMW UK's Retailer Development Director

Kevin has spent some two decades with BMW in a variety of executive roles and has helped spearhead the auto firm's cutting-edge retail initiatives. He has worked as the UK's Retailer Development Director...

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How tech is turbo-charging online car sales

28 Nov, 2016 10:36 am

Consumers are spending more online, even splashing out on big-ticket items such as cars. This has led automakers to dive deeper into the new e-commerce reality by investing in the latest technological innovations to take advantage of online sales platforms. Customers can now take a virtual reality tour of their potential new wheels, inside and out, all from the comfort of their homes, offices, or even on the go, using their mobile devices.

What part does online shopping play in BMW's immersive retail experience?

What we are really doing is giving our customers flexibility in buying a vehicle in whatever way they choose. With our online offering, it is not a hard sell. The offer they get online and offline are the same, so it makes us more transparent across our channels. 
What we are doing is enhancing the toolkit by giving customers a digital option. It really makes it quite powerful. I would fully expect customers to become loyal as we make it easy to do business with us, and that comes down to our online and retailer network.  

What is an example of how you are using online and the onsite dealership experience to complement each other?

We developed a Genius Concept about four years ago. We learned from companies like Apple and their Genius Bar help desk, that getting away from the hard sell was important and particularly relevant in the automotive sector, which traditionally has a reputation for its hard sell.

With BMW Genius, we set ourselves up in the showroom to allow customers to get information without being sold to. We did this by hiring a group of individuals who make up our Genius staff and putting them through a huge amount of training. A customer can ask a Genius anything about the product and know they will get a comprehensive answer.
Since BMW Genius has worked so well in the showroom, we decided to offer this service online as well. So if the customer wants to do a live chat and hasn't select ed a dealership, they can chat online directly with a Genius. If they have chosen a retailer and want to do a live chat in person, then they can talk to a sales executive or Genius in the dealership within the messaging tools and in real time.

How is BMW relying on key technologies to underpin its online platform, such as virtualisation, artificial intelligence, and data analysis?

Online payments and the online application for finance were key functions that we developed. 

Based on what's out there now, I prefer the human interaction over artificial intelligence for the time being. Self-learning systems still have a way to go and I would not discount us using them in the future. But I don't think I would be pushing for that to go live in the near future. I prefer having real people behind it. But at the speed at which artificial intelligence is growing, I definitely wouldn't discount using it in the future.

Virtualisation is a key part of our online showroom. It also complements our Geniuses who have Encyclopaedia Britannica-like knowledge of the cars and videos we can send customers. If a customer wants to see video of a Head-up display after taking a virtual tour, then we integrate all of that into the customer's digital journey when they need it.

What unique challenges specific to the automotive industry did BMW face when creating its online sales platform?

The first challenge was convincing retailers that we weren't replacing them. That was the question the UK media asked when we launched the online product. The answer was an obvious 'no' since our retailer network is such a crucial part of our online offering.

The other big challenge at the digital sales desk is that customers' expectations for response times have increased. We initially said that if a customer didn't get an answer in 15 minutes, then the retailer was dead. But 15 minutes is beyond the expectations of an online shopper - 15 minutes is an age - and we realised we needed to engage with them much quicker than we initially imagined.  

As customers buy more cars online, how will the services that dealerships offer change?

We are really enabling our retailers to reach out to online buyers and to do business with them. When customers from Generation Y and X and Millennials come to buy cars they may want to do it in a completely different way to how previous generations did it. 

When we look at our research, 98% of our customers still want to visit a retailer, even if its just sign the documents and pick up the car. 

The role of the retailer may be changing, but at some point during their digital journey, we do ask our customers to select  a retailer, then the retailer takes over the transaction. The dealer and the online sales platform complement each other for seamless transparency across the channels. 
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