Shopping is undergoing an existential crisis. With or without the coronavirus pandemic, traditional retail has long been under strain – especially when it comes to the car showroom. With the digital model unlikely to completely wipe out bricks-and-mortar, the future is leaning towards a mix – a “phygital” landscape where brands excite us physically and sell to us digitally. The pandemic may have even heightened our longing for experiences, with what many brands are now seeing as the opportunity to offer more unique, one-off and exclusive events in the physical and virtual worlds. And this includes car companies.
“It is an industry where nothing has changed,” says Alain Visser, CEO of Lynk & Co. “Let’s face it: a dealership today is exactly the same as it was 50 years ago! It is out there, not in the cities, but (in less accessible areas) with cars parked and salesmen trying to push them. So, to change that concept is relatively easy.” Due to restrictions on travel, we are having a virtual conversation as Visser celebrates the opening of the first Lynk & Co European “Club” (as they are referred to) in Amsterdam. Later I’m guided through a stylish space with a heightened urban, industrial feel.
One thing the pandemic has shown us is that change is possible almost overnight. So, I ask Visser if he sees a fundamental shift in how cars are marketed. When people visit this Club, he replies, they will see that it is “diametrically opposed to” the traditional car showroom. The product is a highlight, but it is part of a more complex marketing process. He concludes, “I sincerely believe change is possible. I’m actually shocked that it hasn’t been changed yet.”
Lynk & Co has been envisaged as a radical new concept from the start. Founded four years ago by the Chinese auto giant Geely, yet only being introduced to Europe now, the electric car brand ditches the traditional private ownership model for a rental and shared driving scheme. The business model works on a similar principle to streaming services such as Spotify in that customers subscribe to a membership which, depending on what they pay, allows them the option to rent cars for a day, a month or a year. This way Lynk & Co would tap into a new generation of drivers less inclined to own a car who then, presumably, would go on to commit to owning a car from one of Geely Auto’s other brands – Volvo, Polestar or Lotus.
This Clubs are flexible spaces where the public can come and go freely, have a coffee or a branded mocktail; they can use it as a shared workspace or pop in for a live event. Housed in a historical building and using only ecological material – even the display podiums are handcrafted, recycled newspaper and car scraps – the modular Amsterdam space will show exhibitions, stage live music, fashion shows, conduct cooking classes and even have niche lessons in, say, adult puppeteering. The Club concept is also anchored on collaboration with likeminded brands. To kick this off, Lynk & Co has partnered with another Swedish micro mobility company, Vässla, to sell its bikes, with the two hosting events related to sustainable urban mobility. Finally, Lynk & Co’s handful or cars are also available for members to see and discuss and experience – if they so wish.
Visser sees the Amsterdam Club as the first of many – each will have a unique design and feeling – with the next one planned to open at the end of the year in the marque’s hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden. “It embodies everything we stand for: unique experiences, sustainable practices and putting the community first,” he tells me of the Amsterdam flagship. “It’s not just changing the automotive industry; it’s challenging traditional retail. We’ve focused on creating an unforgettable experience for our members above all else.”
The concept makes perfect sense. Younger car consumers are shifting their purchasing habits away from private ownership, increasingly (and especially in cities) opting for leasing or shared transport schemes. Added to this, the sheer volume of products and derivatives manufactured by carmakers can no longer physically be displayed in the conventional showroom. The old order hasn’t worked for some time and there have been a number of trials and errors in exploring new sales models.
A few years ago, I visited the Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt and was ushered to a secret location to experience a mock-up of what was to become Audi City London. It was a fully digital space built on the Apple model with the hope of connecting with younger consumers. Alas, Audi City didn’t work as a singular retail model. Instead, these digital experiences are now performed at the marque’s key car showroom alongside traditional sales methods.
More successful has been the pop-up shop model. Lexus, Hyundai and Infiniti have for some time been setting up temporary “brand hubs” in major city shopping centers – positioning themselves as lifestyle brand. These temporary boutiques in visible locations in shopping centers help inform general shoppers without any hard-sale. Admittedly, I’ve rarely seen them attract more than one or two punters, but the idea to connect directly with consumers, many of whom would otherwise not have entered a traditional car dealership, makes perfect sense.
Last month, another of Geely and Volvo’s niche electric brands, Polestar, opened its first such venue in Westfield shopping center in west London. The “Polestar Space” concept is more permanent than a pop-up, yet the idea follows a similar principle in that the focus is primarily on building brand awareness, as well as educating on the myths and (presumably) the realities of electric driving. Polestar follows a direct-to-customer digital sales model through its website or via an app, so the retail outlet works with non-commissioned specialists and if the customer is interested, then they would organize a test drive and direct them to the digital sales hub. Polestar has plans for some 40 global locations before the end of the year with Jonathan Goodman, head of the UK operations, saying he feels they “will put the fun back into buying a car”.
Elsewhere, Tesla has long adapted what appears to be a traditional salesroom model yet, as expected of this disruptor of the traditional automotive world, these physical spaces are without salespeople. Instead, experts are at hand to educate on the products and electric drive technology. Furthermore, the brand continues to stay away from conventional advertising and refrains from engaging in official press events, relying instead on peer-to-peer endorsement.
Audi City pioneered the use of technology in the car showroom to create virtual spaces where customers could experience their cars, see different configurations and explore various interior colors and textures. Going forward VR, AI, AR will naturally play a more profound role in the new retail landscape. I’m interested to see how Visser sees these intuitive technologies working without impacting on questions of data ownership and privacy.
“Given the fact that we have a lot of connectivity elements in our vehicles, the data privacy is something that we care about very much and we have respected that (aspect) not only in the Club but also in our vehicle,” he says. “For us that is an absolute – it’s non-discussable, non-negotiable in that we protect data privacy totally. But the technologies are there, we just want to use them to benefit the customer rather than the other way around.”
I ask Visser if this challenging climate has impacted on his original plans for Lynk & Co. I mean, he has chosen to open his first venue as many European cities, including my base in London, head for lockdown. “Our objective is to shake up the car industry,” he replies. “To open the Club in these circumstances is not easy because the traffic you generate is going to be very different. But the purpose is the same. The Clubs are the physical demonstration of what we stand for. And we think that Covid if at all, has probably demonstrated that in such uncertain times, buying a car may not be the best solution. So, we think that our membership-based concept is probably more relevant than ever.”