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VOLKSWAGEN Australia has embraced ‘augmented reality’ to bring the online showroom experience into the home of prospective buyers in a growing online buying trend that has been pushed by technology and then accelerated by COVID-19.

The augmented reality (AR) showroom experience from Volkswagen, believed to be the first time for a car-maker yet frequently used by luxury-goods manufacturers, allows customers full control to “try on” the car of their choice and then customise it before allowing the next step to online purchasing.

At the centre of the Volkswagen AR experience is a 280mm high dealership, modelled perfectly to imitate a real dealership and even stocked with product, lounges and cafe.

Australia’s online sales have, because of COVID-19, jumped from nine per cent to 15 per cent of all sales in one year. It is predicted to reach 25 per cent of total sales by 2025.

Consumer behaviour expert and director of Sydney-based Retail Doctor Group, Anastasia Lloyd-Wallis, told GoAutoNews Premium that the virus has triggered the move to online sales which have expanded across demographics especially in sectors not usually seen as predictable online shopping areas.

“It has increased the confidence of shoppers to use online, starting with small purchases – fashion, groceries, beauty and so on – and retailers have made it easier for consumers to shop online through features such as click-and-collect,” she said.

“The process has been simplified and this has given consumers trust. It has now become acceptable to buy bigger products, such as cars.

“The key is trust. Retailers that have gained trust with consumers are the ones who are doing well and will continue to do well.”

Jason Bradshaw, Volkswagen Australia’s chief customer and marketing officer, said the success of online sales is testament to how ready Australians are to buy cars online. Volkswagen’s website traffic has had a record year in 2020, rising by 18 per cent year-on-year.

“Our research shows that the majority of Australians (67 per cent) want shopping online to be easy and save them time and 80 per cent now spend more time than ever pre-researching their purchases online.

“There is a growing importance for shoppers to be able to try out items digitally to feel comfortable they have found the right product for them before they take the plunge.”

Mr Bradshaw said the launch of the AR experience and use of the small dealership model allows prospective buyers to find, test, customise and, if needed, buy a car online.

Ms Lloyd-Wallis said there will always be a need for a physical store.

“What we have found in our research is that consumers research through social media, websites and so on and then use augmented reality to touch and feel the products,” she said.

“Whether the consumer wants that third level of touching and feeling the product in person in the store means they want extra confirmation before they buy.”

She said that the near future will see different store formats more focused on the purchasing experience – the browsing and touch-and-feel part of shopping – while the transactional or financial part can be done elsewhere.

“With cars, the purchase can be made online and you go to a dedicated showroom,” she said.

“For browsing, there’s a different model that creates an emotional experience for the shopper.”

Ms Lloyd-Wallis said the trends in shopping include a need by shoppers to have a personal experience.

“It’s not just the product, it’s the whole journey. Customers are looking for the personal touch every time they look at a brand,” she said.

“That’s what creates a great online experience because it allows the customer to really tweak their journey and get what they want.

“Smart retailers are getting clever with their online interaction with brands so customers can tweak what they see online.

“Luxury fashion does it extremely well. One brand that does it well in the luxury space is Gucci that uses Snapchat for its customers to find products and purchase online or in store. It has great success in bringing in customers.”

She said that Volkswagen’s “smallest dealership” AR was also a very clever use of giving consumers what they want and especially its interaction with mobile phone technology.

“Consumers are on their mobile phones a minimum of four hours a day, and increasing by the day,” she said.

“Any brand that thinks about how the customer uses the mobile phone and brings it into the shopping journey is very clever.”

People will be able to watch a car program on TV and suddenly the car will pop up on your phone – that can happen. So you can take a picture of the car and the info will pop up.

“Volkswagen’s concept is very user friendly. Customers want convenience and they want it all in their own time.

“The ‘smallest dealership’ allows customers to view Volkswagen products on their terms – and that’s the key to it.

“This campaign is very new for the bigger purchase items but I do think it’s a step forward and innovative in the customer space and, I think, needed.

“Customers have become so used to using online information during COVID that I see this trend continuing. They have become used to having what they want, when they want.”

Volkswagen’s AR experience provides buyers with a holistic virtual car dealership experience that allows options including arranging a test drive, personalising a vehicle or buying online.

The custom-built AR technology also includes the ability to test out the vehicle’s lights, open and close the doors, and look into and interact with the interiors for Volkswagen’s new T-Roc and T-Cross SUVs. More models are available later.

Visitors to the site can even scale the car to be 10 times smaller than its real-life size to let people have even more fun with the experience.

Click here to access the smallest dealership AR experience.

By Neil Dowling