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Car retail sector must 'entertain' online customers, guest opinion

François de Bodinat, chief product officer at ZeroLight

Heard the one about the COVID-19 pandemic being an accelerant for change? I think we all have.

What about online car sales? They’re going to save auto retail, right? Maybe, but not just yet.

The industry isn’t fully ready for online sales to become the norm, and that’s fine. But the transformation has already begun anyway. While the majority of purchases will still happen in store for the time being, the purchase decisions are usually made long before a customer hits the store.

We all know that car-buyers, especially the younger ones, are demanding change: just look at average dealership visits per purchase, which have dropped from 7 to 1.5.

Online is now the crucial battleground for every stage of the car-buying journey, but some established OEMs are dragging their feet instead of responding, leaving the more disruptive new-age manufacturers to take the initiative. They see these challenges as opportunities, so they’ve adapted their approach, adopting an agency model of retail that unifies online and in store. Most importantly, they understand what it means to entertain their digital visitors, and it shows. 

Entertaining digital visitors

Take Lucid Motors. As a new entrant to the market, it starts from a clean slate, free from the decades-old retail legacy that often prevents or slows meaningful change for most carmakers.

For the launch of its new Air all-electric saloon, Lucid introduced the industry’s first fully cloud-based retailing ecosystem.

By integrating every retail touchpoint into one centralised cloud-based platform, it effectively blurred the lines between online and in-store, enabling customers to conduct purchases on their own terms.

To enable this ecosystem and bring the Air to virtual life, ZeroLight produced a 3D digital twin of the vehicle using Lucid’s CAD data and some JavaScript wizardry.

This digital twin, which lives on Amazon cloud servers, is the single source of truth for everything Lucid offers people both online and in store.

Whether they’re enjoying the interactive configurator at home or immersed in one of Lucid’s Studio experiences, customers are accessing the same digital world, with the same asset, powered by the same cloud-based tech.

The ‘greatest car configurator ever built’

Hailed by Top Gear as the ‘greatest car configurator ever built’, the cloud-based Lucid Air configurator gives customers around the world the opportunity to explore and build their dream luxury EV. No fancy hardware is needed on the customer side to access this powerful piece of tech – just a basic internet connection

The results were stunning. Within the first five weeks, there were 350,000 user sessions and 1.2 million configuration changes. Per hour, that’s an average of 416 sessions and 1,416 configurations. No physical studio or showroom in the world can match that kind of product exposure.  

Of course, not everyone who played with the interactive configurator was a ‘hot lead’ for Lucid, but those who did go on to reserve the Air after configuring it posted a 10% increase in reservation value compared to those who played with the more traditional picture-based configurator. For a model that can sell for £130,000, that’s not insignificant.

These results were achieved by using true-to-life graphics that are unlike anything you’ll find on the majority of carmakers’ sites – for the time being, at least. This doesn’t just apply to the Air itself, but to the scenery as well: you can choose between a number of California-inspired backgrounds, complete with life-like features, such as moving waves and chirping birds. When Lucid brings the Air to these shores in 2021, you might see a configurator using familiar local urban or countryside scenes as backdrop.

This is all underpinned by real-time ray tracing, a technique from the gaming world that realistically recreates the way light interacts with different objects and materials in the real world.

For the first time ever, this tech was delivered via the cloud, which means every shadow and reflection of the car is true to life and computed in real time, regardless of the device the customer is using to access the content.

A new hope

While the current climate is challenging for every automotive manufacturer and retailer, the early success of Lucid’s digital strategy can give hope to an entire industry.

The company demonstrated the value of aligning the product experience with the purchase experience, of making no compromise between quality and scalability, and of building every stage around the customer.

Above all else, it’s clear that a return to business-as-usual is not the solution for our industry; brands must become customer-centric entertainers to grab attention and conclude sales.

At the end of the day, the customer’s physical location is not important. Online or offline, the principle – and technology – remain the same, with one unwavering goal: to deliver the most interactive, engaging, and consistent shopping experience.

Author: François de Bodinat, chief product officer at ZeroLight

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