Seat customers can use 8 touchscreens to handle all aspects of their car purchase (Photo: Seat)

LONDON -- Nobody really knows what car buying will look like in 10 years. Some say online retail will be the future, but others are certain that car showrooms and dealer groups will continue to play a key role. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and there are arguments to be made for a seamless integration of the two worlds.

Spain's Seat last week demonstrated how that would look with a new facility outside London. The Volkswagen Group brand has opened a new store concept at the Intu Lakeside shopping mall 20 miles east of London. There, located between Primark and Starbucks, Seat is targeting a new generation of shoppers with 150 square meters of automotive retail space.

The store, which was shown to a group of reporters last week, is a clear combination of the digital and physical world. There are three real Seat models on display, but eight so-called "kiosks" are the real focus of the business.

It is at these terminals that interested customers can configure their vehicles, get an actual quote, obtain a price quote for their old car, reserve the new vehicle and, if needed, get financing arranged. The real-time search function polls information about the new cars that are physically available right there. The most popular models are in stock.

The customer can start the search at home and seamlessly complete the process at the Seat facility in Lakeside, which is a key function of the sales process. "Buyers use multiple devices at different times to complete their research and purchase," said Simon McClure, head of client services at Connect-Auto, the connected-retail specialist that developed the system.

Following Apple and Google

For Seat, Lakeside provides an opportunity to test a sales approach that is radically different from the traditional dealership environment. "When we developed our solution we thought about brands such as Apple and Amazon and asked ourselves how we could improve the buying process for our customers," said Matt Benns, head of customer quality and network development at Seat UK.

The process is designed to not put any pressure on customers. They can, for example, study different financing options in the comfort of their homes if they don't want to do this at the store.

This sense of intimacy is transferred to the Lakeside facility. For the on-site configuration of the models, Seat opted for 22 inch touchscreen  kiosks rather than the life-size screens that sister brand Audi deploys in its "Audi City" locations.

Sales personnel at the new store aren't primarily sales reps either. Many have gained experience at Apple or Vodafone stores, where they were trained to answer questions about software functions, rather than discuss seat color or wheel rim design.

This hands-off approach also applies to test drives, which can be conducted without any dealer representative coming along. Seat has a dedicated parking area at Lakeside, where every model can be checked out and taken for a spin. Booking can be handled through the kiosks or from home.

Expensive real estate

Seat-Lakeside-1-300x200 The Lakeside store has 3 actual Seat models (Photo: Seat)

The hybrid approach adopted by Seat was designed to help car companies better target a rapidly changing customer base that wants to do more online and less in a retail facility.

It also addressed the real concern for Seat and other car brands of finding top retail locations in expensive city centerst.

"We wanted to be more present in London and gain market share there," said Seat UK boss Richard Harrison. "But we quite simply had to deal with the question where we could actually build a new dealership." The conclusion, he said, was to think about about a concept that "deviates somewhat from the classic car dealership."

Next to Connect-Auto, British retailer Group 1 Automotive partnered with Seat on the new retail concept. Together, the companies undertook the project and completed it in only nine months.

Harrison said his bosses at Seat headquarters in Barcelona had confidence in the venture, which serves as somewhat of a test case for both Seat and its parent, the Volkswagen Group. No decisions have been made, but insiders said that, if Seat is successful, the concept could be transferred to other VW Group brands.

-By Pascal Nagel