Why Consumers Need Virtual Car Showrooms

The case for virtual car showrooms isn’t a tough one to make in the automotive industry. Manufacturers and dealerships understand that Covid shifted the playing field. Online shopping became the safe option for many consumers, and necessity might have played a major part of the shift, too.

During the pandemic—which is still raging on—many businesses that were deemed non essential might have been closed. States and even cities had different restrictions, however. Some cities issued lockdowns while others didn’t even mandate masks.

Consumers had to adjust their daily habits to meet the mandates of their area while also acting to protect their own health. Online shopping may have become the safe option for many who simply didn’t want to shop in potentially crowded and sometimes cleaned-out stores. During the height of the pandemic, grocery store shelves were stripped of toilet paper, paper towels and canned goods. Meat sections were cleared. Shoppers might have been forced to get creative with meals…and paper goods, too. Perhaps bidets began to look like an appealing upgrade.

Online stores might have been a welcome respite from the possible chaos of in-store experiences. Virtual shopping also meant no exposure to others. For shoppers who were on the hunt for bigger purchases like cars, searching online might have been the only option if local dealerships were closed.

Shopping for a Car When Dealerships Weren’t Open

Those in need of a new car during the height of pandemic restrictions might have had few options for browsing. Dealerships often offered slideshows or photos of vehicles on their lot. Yet, pictures don’t tell the whole…picture.

The one-dimensional flat image gives the shopper a basic look at the car. Even photos of the interior can offer shoppers with what the car looks like. However, interactions via photos aren’t so enticing or exciting. Visitors to a dealership site click a picture, view it, and move on.

What did the car shopping experience look like before Covid? For many new car hunters, the process might have been involved. Maybe the hunt involved visits to many different dealerships. Buyers may or may not have had an idea about the type of car they wanted, and this lack of direction might have further complicated the search. Procuring a loan also was part of the buying experience for many on the hunt for a new or used car. Some buyers may not have been easily—or quickly—approved.

According to a press release announcing the findings of the “2019 Cox Automotive Car Buyer Journey” study, the average car buyer went to 2.3 car dealerships. Cox Automotive also reported that even before Covid, online shopping was experiencing an uptick. The 2019 press release noted that “Car buyers spend an estimated 61% of active shopping time online….”

The time benefit of online shopping also may hold appeal for buyers. The in-store experience can be frustrating especially when dealing with financing. Cox Automotive explained: “Buyers who negotiate and complete their required paperwork online are notably more satisfied with the buying process, as are those who spend less than 2 hours total at the dealership.”

During Covid, many shoppers couldn’t possibly make even one visit to a dealership. When dealerships were closed, though, business couldn’t just grind to a halt. Buyers still needed and wanted cars. Yet, they needed a way to browse and interact with the vehicles.

Augmented and virtual reality showrooms became a solution to the need for a new browsing experience. While pictures and photo slideshows could still be a part of the vehicle presentation, interactive online showrooms provided an immersive shopping experience for the consumer.

Virtual Car Showrooms

Augmented vs. Virtual: What’s the Difference

Prior to Covid, some dealerships and manufacturers offered interactive user experiences via virtual reality or augmented reality. These types of showrooms did exist before the pandemic, but the need for them was likely exacerbated by the health mandates of states and cities.

There might have been different platforms available to the car buying consumer during the online experience. Shoppers could have been immersed in a virtual reality car showroom or experienced their browsing via augmented reality.  

What’s the difference between these two technologies? Aren’t they the same? Augmented and virtual reality are two very different experiences, but both can be used for a car showroom online. In fact, RelayCars offers both an augmented reality showroom and a virtual reality showroom; users can choose the platform that works best for them.

The difference between augmented and virtual reality is the environment. In virtual reality showrooms, the entire showroom exists virtually. Users can enter the virtual showroom by wearing a virtual reality headset or it could be a destination that’s available on a website (no headset necessary). Headsets actually allow the user to feel that they are in another place, while an online static experience simply allows the user to interact via a virtual environment. In contrast, augmented reality car showrooms typically allow the user (or shopper) to place a vehicle into the user’s own unique environment.

With augmented reality, the user can place an SUV on a bed, in the garage or even next to a tree. The user gets to choose the environment. In virtual reality, though, the environment is created for the user…and it exists virtually.

One technology isn’t inherently better than the other. Some users prefer virtual experiences, others like the unique mixed reality of augmented reality showrooms. Both types of showrooms may be offered via a website or an app.

Virtual reality showrooms can allow the user to walk around a car, look inside the vehicle and view other features, too. Augmented reality showrooms provide similar options. In addition, the user also may be able to change paint colors or maybe add unique features to the car.

Augmented reality and virtual reality showrooms and experiences existed before Covid. Ferrari designed an app to be used in the physical dealership to allow buyers to change aspects of the vehicles on the showroom floor.  With the app, the paint hues and other features could be changed. Users also could see inside the mechanics of the vehicle.

Virtual Car Showrooms

Virtual and Augmented Reality Simplify the Car Hunt

The ease of online virtual and augmented reality experiences might have streamlined the car shopping experience. While it is true that some shoppers might have gone online out of necessity, as the restrictions eased, shoppers might have been more comfortable with online experiences…even for large purchases. Habit breeds comfort, and months of lockdown for some consumers might have also meant months of getting intimately acquainted with online shopping.

During Covid, some dealerships might have been forced to take the entire buying process online—including the financing. Some places might not have been able to handle financing online. Regardless of how much of the buying process was and is completed in an online space, the prevalence of virtual and augmented reality might have forever impacted shopping experiences for the better.

While it remains to be seen how dealerships handle online offerings post-Covid (since we’re still in the midst of the pandemic), sites like RelayCars remain a fixed space for those who prefer to browse online. Even if dealerships can’t or don’t wish to continue to host a virtual showroom, shoppers may look to other online resources to do their research before heading to a dealership.

Consumers might look online during their car shopping hunt to find what makes and models interest them, fit the budget and meet their needs. Aesthetics matter to many consumers, but, ultimately, the price has to be right, too.

Online resources including dealership sites offer data that consumers need to help figure out their ideal vehicle. Before the pandemic, dealership sites were one of the go-to destinations to find information about the available deals, rebates and sales. Consumers could use these online sites as tools to compare and contrast prices.

Virtual and augmented reality car showrooms add yet another layer to the consumer’s research toolbox. When deciding between two competing brands of sedans, consumers could visit an online showroom to gain more information about the features or the interior specs. Little details could make a big difference, and while pictures are beneficial, they don’t tell the whole story about a vehicle.

Using virtual and augmented reality experiences, shoppers can walk around the vehicle, step inside and glance at the unique features of each model. The consumer can use these experiences to whittle down their wish list; dealership visits may then become more thoughtful.

The old way of shopping for a car was, for many, an endeavor. The hunt for the perfect ride might have included visits to multiple dealerships, several test drives and many, many walks around the sales lots. As dealerships began to develop savvier marketing materials online, more resources were readily available via websites. Consumers have been able to browse pictures of cars online for years; now, though, the rise of virtual and augmented reality has simplified the search once more.