Digital has changed our social, business and education. During the pandemic, the online world kept Americans connected to jobs, teachers/schools and friends and loved ones. However, businesses also were impacted by the speed of digital. When shelter-in-place restrictions might have kept nonessential businesses closed, many, including the automotive industry, relied on online tools and opened their doors virtually.
How did businesses use online tools to try to replicate the shopping experience or, in the case of non retail businesses, how did they replicate the office environment? Here’s a look at how digital moves businesses forward…even when normalcy is paused or slowed during the pandemic.
Car Shopping Went Online
Buying a car online wasn’t the norm before Covid. While virtual car shopping was an option, most buyers likely stayed to the tried and true routine of car buying/shopping. For younger buyers, the buying process might have begun online before the pandemic to check out a dealership’s inventory or to view new models.
Then, of course, the buyer would visit the dealership, maybe sit in several different cars and take a test drive of favorites. Discovering the dream car meant negotiating and then signing on the dotted line. This was, before Covid, probably the norm for most buyers.
Older shoppers might have skipped the online visits. Maybe they wanted to see everything in person and had no desire to look at online inventory. Every buyer might have had their own buying process.
However, once lockdowns started and businesses closed to foot traffic, even the car buying experience had to shift. Now an online presence had to be stealthy and beyond just those basic pictures. Dealerships began offering virtual showrooms to allow buyers to view the car inside and out from all angles. Some virtual showrooms even allowed shoppers to switch out wheel rims or view the car with a different paint hue.
And what about those test drives? Some dealerships offered to bring the car to buyers. Maybe this meant that the buyer scheduled for a virtual test drive. Some dealerships provided virtual test drives via videos.
The goal for many dealerships was likely to try to come close to replicating the in-person shopping experience. While the online world couldn’t completely mirror an real-life shopping experience, virtual reality and augmented reality allowed dealerships to capture some of the similarities of shopping in-person.
Of course, virtual customer service assistants also likely played a role in the process. These virtual assistants weren’t necessarily virtual like those found in smartphones or other devices, online virtual assistants were likely real individuals handling customer questions and concerns via an online chat function.
Still, when salespeople were not necessarily available—as they would be at the physical dealership—offering customer service assistance helped customers navigate this virtual shopping experience.
Working Virtually and Virtual Reality For Development and Unveiling New Models
During Covid, many Americans have worked from home. Many are STILL working from home. Car manufacturers also took their business virtual. Back in March, at the start of the pandemic, The Verge reported that manufacturers had their employees head home to do their job duties. However, according to the story, those who worked in the factories—on the assembly lines—didn’t have such an option.
Virtual reality also aided the industry during the pandemic. CNBC reported that General Motors used virtual reality in developing the 2022 GMC Hummer EV. The company also continued to work on their self-driving, ride-hailing car Cruise Origin during the pandemic, although it wasn’t clear if virtual reality played a role.
However, in an article at FoxNews, it was reported that Barra noted that the GMC HUMMER EV and the Cadillac Lyric SUV would be unveiled online using virtual and augmented reality.
Virtual and augmented reality allowed consumers to immerse in cultural and entertainment experiences while stuck at home. Museums, while shut during the pandemic, went online offering virtual galleries and even virtual tours. Even now, couch travelers can visit the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel and museums around the world to view art and exhibits.
Can’t book a flight for a vacation? Take a virtual vacation. YouTube videos and other web sites offered tours of historic sites…virtually. Some even allowed visitors at home to take a virtual trek through the canopy of the Amazon Rainforest.
Car manufacturers plugged in to virtual too. In May, Lamborghini launched an augmented reality experience for its Huracan EVO RWD Spyder. Bored during the pandemic? Drop a Lamborghini onto the bed! Yes, the new Lamborghini could be virtually placed anywhere in a room (or outdoors). The app then allowed users to explore all around the new vehicle! The experience is still available…and it’s really cool!
Lamborghini’s augmented reality experience also was a creative way to use digital platforms to create a unique marketing experience for users. While not everyone can afford a Lamborghini, the experience brought the car into homes across the globe.
Of course, dealerships and manufacturers also used other digital marketing experiences during Covid. Virtual showrooms are a great example of how dealerships could create an experience to help drive sales…or interest in vehicles. Many buyers like to see and feel items before they purchase; while virtual experiences can give tactile feedback, virtual experiences can provide potential buyers or even casual window shoppers with a better glimpse of a product.
After all, three dimensional views tend to be much more impressive than flat photos!
Other Industries went Online to Survive and Thrive, Too!
During Covid, a lot of shopping jumped online…including car shopping. But, let’s be honest, online shopping is nothing new. It’s been around for decades now. Still, not everyone jumped at the chance to load up their virtual shopping carts. Until, perhaps, there was no other option.
Online car buying was never really a ‘norm’ before Covid. But the pandemic changed the way consumers shopped…even for big purchases. Those who desperately needed a new vehicle but couldn’t go into the dealership had to shop somehow. Virtual showrooms provided a new way to check out all the new car models available.
Lockdowns also meant that many Americans couldn’t just get in their car (even if it was a new car that was purchased online!), drive to the store and peruse the merchandise. Yes, stores that sold both food and clothes likely stayed open. Mall stores or those that sold nonessential items were probably shut—depending on the region and local mandates. If a consumer really wanted a new leather jacket, and they couldn’t find it at a big box retailer that also happened to carry essentials, they were likely out of luck.
If that shopper really wanted that jacket, though, they could pull up their web browser and search the internet. Stores galore were open online! And what about beauty stores and boutiques that sold luxury items? Those were online too.
The internet became the mall. Shopping went virtual. And stores that were already incredibly visible online likely discovered that the transition was smoother than those who hadn’t kept up with the digital revolution. There is a difference between merely offering products online and providing a digital shopping experience.
Many stores or retailers likely tried their best to mimic or replicate the in-store experiences. Beauty stores like Ulta and Sephora already offered tools that allowed consumers to preview products via augmented reality-type apps. Shoppers could upload a picture and try on lipstick, blush or other products. During a time when real visits to stores were limited, the option to preview purchases and eliminate guesswork likely helped to elevate the shopping experiences for consumers.
Stores selling clothes might have offered a similar digital experience online. A virtual changing/fitting room might have allowed customers to download a photo and digitally overlay dresses, tops, bottoms and other garments. Again, the guesswork of how the item would look on the individual was virtually eliminated.
Many consumers also likely realized some very obvious advantages to shopping online during the pandemic. Hunting for something in the store meant a trip—even if it was small. Most consumers also probably didn’t show up to the store in their pajamas. And store visits were limited to the hours they were open.
Online shopping, however, had no rules. Shop in your pajamas! Shop at 1 a.m. Shop from the couch. Or the bed. Or the toilet (it’s probably happened!). There were no store hours, no dress codes. Convenience was so very convenient.
The same non-rules held true for car shopping during the pandemic. If the dealerships were closed and buying went online, shoppers could hunt for a car whenever. The digital showroom had no salespeople, no stress, no lines.
The future in the automotive industry will likely bring many new changes—electric cars, self-driving cars maybe more online shopping. Will consumers prefer buying a car online after Covid? That might depend on the buyer’s personal preferences. However, manufacturers might embrace more digital marketing endeavors like Lamborghini’s augmented reality experience.
So what does the digital future look like for the automotive industry? Kids—the future—may have the answer. Toyota launched a contest for kids called the Toyota Dream Car USA Art Contest. The company challenges kids to come up with their dream car…and the ideas are whatever they can imagine. Perhaps the next dream car of a child’s imagination will be the future vehicle we drive.