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Would I buy a car from a Shopping Centre?

We’ve all taken a curious glance on an afternoon out, but what’s it like as a car buying experience? Clover Kennard provides an insightful look at a rapidly growing automotive retail trend.

The traditional method of buying a new car has changed significantly in the past few years. As lifestyles have become increasingly busy, we have less time to spend on researching and buying a new car – we need this process to be as quick and easy as possible, whilst making sure we get the best deal. We predominantly research potential new car purchases online making on average 900 plus digital interactions  per purchase over a 3-month period. I personally found time Googling on the bus, lunch breaks and wherever else I could fit it in between work and home life.

Peer validation and social proof is incredibly important in this research journey, with 82% of people seeking recommendations from friends and family when considering a purchase. Potential car buyers are exploring user generated content on Facebook and Instagram, searching to see the cars their peer groups are recommending and those important pictures proving that a family of 4 with 2 dogs fit comfortably in the car they’re researching.

Dealership visits are down from 7 average visits per purchase to only 1.5, suggesting buyers are pretty much set on their make and model of choice before visiting, which is the final validation required to make sure their research was correct. It also places an incredible amount of importance on the face to face experience – is this brand and model really everything I think it is from my online research?

Over the past few years car brands have been trying out different ideas to appeal to potential buyers and to ensure the different stages of the purchase journey fit into our increasingly busy lives.

Volvo launched a partnership with Amazon to offer Prime Now test drives, enabling interested participants to book a time that works for them, with the car delivered to their home or workplace by a trained expert. The opening weekend completely sold out and received a 95% “excellent” experience rating from participants.

SEAT have a retail showroom in London’s Westfield shopping centre, offering the opportunity for interested people to go and physically sit in the cars, chat to friendly advisors and ask as many questions as they like in a completely non pressurised environment.

The bulk of my own research was done online looking at reviews, social media and the brand website. I narrowed down my selection to the SEAT Ateca. Next step; seeing the Ateca in person. I decided to try the more traditional dealership experience and also a retail shopping experience. Firstly, let me tell you a bit about me. I think this is relevant as different people shop for things in different ways. I am a female, in my early 30s and live in a city. I currently don’t have a car and have never purchased a new car before.

Stop 1 – my local SEAT dealership

After a quick Google I was pleased to see there was a SEAT dealership a 40 minute bus ride away – not close but not the end of the world either. After heading out of town towards the dealership the bus dropped me off right outside the front. I wandered around the forecourt and then headed inside. First impressions, quite crowded (desks, chairs, cars) but light and airy, and it looks like the dealership has been recently redecorated. The dealership was not exclusively SEAT so there were also other brands of car there. A friendly salesman greeted me and started to help me explore the Ateca in more detail. I can’t really put my finger on it – my experience was good, the people I spoke to were helpful and informative and I left with all the info I needed. However, there was not much in the way of the “feel” of the SEAT brand in my experience.

Stop 2 – The SEAT retail showroom

As the SEAT retail showroom sits in Westfield, a couple of quick stops on the tube from where I work, I headed there on my lunch break to check it out. It took me 15 minutes to get there.

Upon approaching the SEAT retail showroom, it was very clear that this was a friendly and open space, built to entice people inside. I loved the decor – minimalist, bright with beautiful trees to bring the outside in. The space is surrounded by screens displaying colourful videos. SEAT are clear in their brand messaging: Car shopping made easy: convenient opening times, no pushy salespeople, no commission, unaccompanied test drives, no pressure, no haggle pricing, a fair price, flexible finance.

Upon entering I was greeted by the very friendly and knowledgeable salesman called Nouman who introduced himself and offered his assistance if I needed any help. I politely declined preferring to explore by myself. All the staff were very friendly but left me to my antics as I looked at and sat in all the cars on offer. I noted that 2 of the 4 visible employees on hand to assist are female, which is different from the predominantly male focused work force in the dealership. When I did have some questions Nouman was there to help me. He seemed genuine, friendly and knowledgeable. My experience was incredibly positive and relaxed. By being in the store and having no pressure, and all the information I needed to make my decision I had talked myself into booking a test drive about 15 minutes later. Sadly my limited lunch break slot did not allow me to do this immediately.

The location of the shop is telling about the market SEAT are looking to appeal to. Situated right next to Mammas and Pappas and opposite Starbucks with a few other fashion stores dotted around, it seems they are looking to capture and inspire young families, couples and individuals and place SEAT firmly into their brand consideration phase. Thinking about my own age, situation and car knowledge I think i’m probably their perfect target market.

I wanted to find out from Nouman what his role focuses on, he was only too happy to have a chat. He tells me that his role is to help people by answering their questions and providing information. Nouman wants people to see that the car buying journey is not as difficult as they may think it is and that by experiencing the SEAT retail showroom they will see how honest and transparent the staff, and brand are. He tells me that he will regularly tell an enquirer if he doesn’t think a SEAT is right for them and will even go as far as to recommend a competitor if he thinks the model is better suited. He also tells me that he will often speak to people over the course of 3-4 months, helping answer any questions they have and assisting them in booking test drives with the different models to find the one best suited to them. Lastly he asks me to take a look at their Google reviews. I must say they are glowing with one customer saying “Really can’t recommend them highly enough for a new car buying experience.” and many more similar messages.

There were many differences between my 2 visits. Whilst my dealership experience was good, my visit to the retail showroom afterwards highlighted how the dealership experience did not feel as authentic, on brand and suited to me personally. It felt quite male oriented, both in the decor and with the lack of female staff working there. The dealership staff were helpful and informative but I didn’t get the same kind of excitement I felt when exploring the SEAT retail showroom. Personally, I think that the retail showroom did a better job of delivering on the brand values and experience that I had bought into with my online research – much easier for them to do of course due to it being an exclusive SEAT space. The retail showroom was an environment that I felt comfortable in, it felt authentic and it delivered against my expectations of the brand. It was a way of shopping that suited my busy schedule and was just a bit more glamorous than heading out into the middle of nowhere to the dealership. However I do feel it is unfair to compare the two as i’m sure the Westfield store costs a fortune both in rent and decor. But with my buyers hat on I have to be honest about what I preferred.

I started to think how dealerships can try and replicate the retail showroom experience with a far more limited budget than I imagine the showroom has. Authenticity is key, as is ensuring the space feels on brand. Big digital screens are a great way to present rich content about a brand and are relatively cheap to buy. The walls of the Westfield store were covered in large digital screens enabling the store to fill them with dynamic, authentic, eye catching content. Having screens in dealerships and using content produced by the brand and their advocates they could replicate this positive brand feeling. I noticed that the dealership had a number of Thank You cards dotted around their desks. Highlighting positive customer experiences in the form of reviews and displaying this content on the screens would really help share the great experiences their customers had, providing a level of authenticity and trust.

The SEAT retail showroom was a clear winner for my personal car buying journey. The brand presentation, convenient location/opening times, super helpful and friendly staff all made it very appealing.

So what’s the catch – surely a SEAT from the retail showroom will be more expensive I tell myself. Would I be willing to pay £5-6k more just for this nice friendly experience?! Well surprisingly the Retail Showroom was actually on par with the dealership price. To double check this on a wider scale I did some research on CAR WOW and it seems that they are selling at a similar rate as other dealers. This was a surprise!

In conclusion – Would I buy a car from a shopping centre – YES, 100%, for me personally SEAT have nailed it.

Clover kennard

Clover has four years of experience working in partnership with automotive brands, developing customer centric content strategies to demonstrate their core values of trust and authenticity.