BMW is re-imagining the brick-and-mortar showroom experience for the digital age.
The brand’s global Retail Next design concept, which debuts in the U.S. in July, attempts to make the dealership visit feel more experiential and less transactional, BMW of North America sales boss Shaun Bugbee told Automotive News last week.
“It’s about recognizing that the buying process has changed and how we make it more inviting to the consumer, instead of … filled with anxiety,” Bugbee said.
“There’s a fundamental customer perspective that once you go in the showroom, it is an uncomfortable experience.”
BMW’s future showrooms will feature fewer cars, and each model will have a display with loungelike seating, unique lighting elements and premium furnishings.
“It’s more like a five-star hospitality [suite] than a typical showroom,” Bugbee said. “We want to emulate the ease, transparency and convenience of the online experience and duplicate that in-store.”
About 25 BMW dealerships are in early planning to update to the new design. Nearly a third of the brand’s 350 U.S. stores will renovate their spaces over the next few years.
Automakers are keen to replicate Tesla’s no-pressure experience that sharply contrasts with the high-pressure sales tactics associated with the franchised dealership model.
BMW National Dealer Forum Chairman David Sloane said the “modern, boutiquelike” design seeks to transform the dealership into a conversational space.
“Manufacturers are bringing greater sensibility to their facility upgrade programs,” said Sloane, president of Sloane Automotive Group in suburban Philadelphia. “There’s more thought and willingness in seeking input from retailers about what makes sense and what doesn’t.”
BMW last updated its store design nearly a decade ago. Referred to as Future Retail, that concept emphasized open space, glass and natural light.
The latest concept puts the spotlight on BMW’s sedans and crossovers.
“The focus is on the product presentation,” Bugbee said. “The car is the star.”
Dealer Mark Smith described the new design as “warm and colorful” — giving the showroom the feel of an “eclectic hotel lobby.”
“The customer is expecting something new and different,” said Smith, president of Principle Auto in San Antonio, which operates two BMW stores. “I applaud BMW for thinking about the customer experience.”
But the new corporate identity program is more than cosmetic. It will require dealership employees to change the way they do business.
BMW is ditching the sales adviser cubicles that typically ring the showroom. Instead, salespeople will interact with potential customers at the vehicle displays.
While the laid-back ambiance might be more consumer-friendly, some dealers are skeptical the concept will work.
“We’re in the sales business,” Sloane said. “It’s a stretch to think that a salesperson will sit at a table with an iPad and sell a car.”
BMW’s current floor plan has salespeople negotiating car deals in cubicles with low divider walls. That’s an issue for some dealers.
“We are fans of having privacy when handling financial negotiations with customers,” said Nicholas Alexander, president of Nick Alexander BMW in Los Angeles. The new design guidelines “provide more privacy for clients and salespeople,” the dealer said.
BMW’s store update arrives at a precarious time for the brand’s dealers, who are already on the hook for pricey infrastructure investments needed to sell and service the coming fleet of electric vehicles.
“We have to be smart about what we’re asking dealers to do,” Sloane said. “To simply add more expense to the dealer, with no benefit and no justification, that doesn’t make sense.”
Mindful of dealer concerns, BMW is not pushing the new design on the network. Retailers who have updated their stores to BMW’s current corporate image are given a pass for 15 years.
“It’s important that we recognize the existing investment, which will be honored,” Bugbee said.
BMW is also flexible about how retailers update their stores to the new standard. Dealers can source furniture and fixtures from multiple and local vendors.
“We will not mandate a one-size-fits-all vendor,” Bugbee said.