Automakers Build a Showroom in an App

Jaclyn Trop:

Automakers trying to reach young buyers face a conundrum: How do they sell a car to people who stay away from a showroom?

“They won’t come into the stores to educate themselves,” said Peter Chung, general manager of Magic Toyota and Scion in Edmonds, Wash. “They’ll do that online.”

More than half of the younger buyers surveyed by, a car-buying site, said they wanted to avoid interacting with dealership sales representatives.

In response, automakers like Cadillac and Toyota are starting to embrace technology that tries to take the showroom to the buyer. Known as augmented reality, it embeds images and videos in a picture on the user’s smartphone or tablet. The result is a far more detailed view of the image, often in three dimensions with added layers of information.

For example, when Cadillac introduced the ATS last year, it created a campaign in cities across the country that allowed observers to point an iPad at a chalk mural and watch the car drive through scenes like China’s mountainous Guoliang Tunnel and Monaco’s Grand Prix circuit. The goal was to grab the attention of potential buyers, especially younger ones, who would not normally think of Cadillac when researching new cars.

Later, Cadillac added the technology to its print advertising, pointing readers to download the brand’s smartphone application to view a three-dimensional model of the car. The app allows users to zoom in on the car and turn it 360 degrees by swiping their finger across the screen.

Many younger buyers no longer even test-drive a car before buying it, said Mr. Chung, the general manager of Magic Toyota and Scion. Instead, they read reviews and add features to their vehicle online before going to the dealership with the exact model and price they expect shown on their smartphone.

That is one reason Mr. Chung and other car dealers expect augmented reality to serve as a powerful selling tool in place of a sales associate.

“The consumer is no longer coming in and looking at 10 colors,” Mr. Chung said. “They’ve seen all 10 colors online and know what they want.”