The Digital Showroom: A Look at the Past, Present and Future

The B2B buying experience is changing fast. As digital natives move into prominent positions in the organisations they work for the expectation on suppliers to provide engaging, digital buying experiences increases. One place we’ve seen lots of innovation is in the showroom space in both B2C and B2B showrooms. From car dealerships to fashion houses to lift manufacturers, the digital showroom has undergone a radical transformation over the past few years. Here we look at the past, present and future of the showroom and explain how you can create your own digital showroom experience.

 

The Past – The First Wave of Digital Showrooms

To find the first instance of a digital showroom in the UK we must go back to 2012 and look to ‘Audi City’. The motivation for Audi was the need to reach more urban customers, particularly those who lived in exclusive areas of major cities. The problem was that showroom space is limited in these areas and for a car dealer especially the number of models they could have on show was extremely limited.

To overcome this Audi felt that digital may provide the answer. The solution eventually came in the form of ‘mega-screens’, floor to ceiling screens capable of showing every Audi model in 1:1 scale. To add an interactive element to the showroom experience customers could build their dream car using a touchscreen. Their personalised creation was then displayed in 3D on the ‘mega-screens’ in real-time.

Peter Schwarzenbauer, Audi’s head of marketing and sales, says: “Audi City combines the best of two worlds – digital product presentation and personal contact with the dealer. This new retail format brings us even closer to our customers – geographically, of course, but first and foremost in terms of the quality of our relationship. Audi City offers new freedom for tailor-made services and an even more individual contact with the customer.”

The first Audi City showroom was launched in 2012 in Piccadilly with a global roll out planned for 20 showrooms in 2015 which they have since completed. Take a look at the promotional video below for a deeper insight.

 

 

The Rise of the Digital B2B Showroom

Our first encounter with a B2B digital showroom in the fashion industry came 3 years later in 2015 when we saw the announcement of the Tommy Hilfiger digital showroom. The Tommy Hilfiger showroom took two years of internal teambuilding which was likely spent building the software.

The motivation was to cut lead times from product development to the product hitting the shelves. This would result in a reduction in the number of samples with the future aim being to remove all samples from showrooms in the future.

In our 2015 article titled Create a Digital Showroom Experience for £150 or less, we praised the success of the Tommy Hilfiger digital showroom and were extremely impressed with the quality of the end result and their commitment to the vision, planning and implementation involved.

Tommy Hilfiger may well be leading in the Fashion sector, but they were not the first apparel company to do this. Adidas were also using technology like interactive touch screens and 3D product modelling at the time. Of course, other brands would soon follow including Hugo Boss who created their B2B digital showroom experience a year later in 2017, complete with a 65-inch touchscreen mounted in a table. According to their website Hugo Boss plan to roll the format out globally throughout 2018.

 

 

The Future – Is VR too far?

As we saw, in 2012 Audi were pioneers of the digital showroom although many others have now developed their own formats across many industries. BMW, Lotus, Hugo Boss, Adidas and Thyssenkrupp have all developed ways to provide an immersive and interactive customer experience in their showrooms.  So, what does the future look like for showrooms in B2C and B2B?

 

The Audi Virtual Reality Showroom

The next chapter of the Audi story leads us to look at the launch of the Audi Virtual Reality Showroom in 2017. The reasons for introducing a VR experience were largely the same as those for launching Audi City, more of the range can be showcased only now, as well as building their cars in VR, customers can sit inside and take it for a virtual test drive.

There were hitches in 4 ½ year process of bringing it to market though. Getting the technology to work on the older computers their independently franchised dealers use was a challenge. So was processing the hundreds of millions of configurations customers can choose from. This is to be expected as any kind of innovation brings problems. It’s commendable that Audi are bold enough to try it at all. The question is though, would you buy a £90k car without touching the actual vehicle itself?

In their press release Audi say they are letting their dealers promote the Audi Virtual Reality Showroom concept rather than supporting it with a central strategy. It seems that it’s not quite ready to make a mainstream appearance just yet, so is VR a step too far?

 Adidas say showrooms are no more!

Adidas are another market leader when it comes to digitalisation, especially in the sports industry as they begin to integrate new technologies into the B2B and B2C buying experience. One example is their new ‘Click’ platform for B2B buyers, another is their VR showrooms.

In an ISPO interview in mid 2018 Adidas Executive Board Member Roland Auschel said he believes there will be fewer physical showrooms in the future as VR showrooms are a much more convenient and reduce their reliance on excel line lists, catalogues and samples.

“People can view products in high-resolution 3D quality in a virtual world, take them off the shelf and rotate them 360 degrees. In addition, things like displaying article numbers, segmentation, price overviews and videos will also be possible. In other words: Our regional showrooms can thus be digitized.”

The Adidas VR showrooms are not yet live as far as we know however they are playing a major part in the digitalisation of the sports industry. Other projects Adidas are currently working on include Futurecraft 4D and Speedfactory.

Thyssenkrupp get high on VR

Lift manufacturer and elevator technology giant Thyssenkrupp announced in July 2018 that they will roll out VR to their showrooms across Asia and the Middle East. The aim is to provide customers with unique product views and enhanced product information that just aren’t possible in a traditional showroom setting.

Displayed for the very first time at the Dubai Airport Show earlier this year, the concept attracted much attention among the guests. Instead of looking at brochures, charts, and graphs or simply watching presentations on the screen, the attendees had the chance to literally immerse in the new MULTI and TWIN-technology and to experience the new transport solutions from the inside out.

 

 

The new VR concept includes seven different theme rooms that take visitors straight to the heart of technologies and solutions like TWIN and MULTI elevator systems. For example, they have the chance to experience a ride in the new transport system and closely inspect the cabins including applying several furnishing options. They also can learn about the operating principle of the new Thyssenkrupp Elevator solutions as well as about the numerous possibilities of using it in urban areas.

“We bring the showroom experience directly to our branches – close to where our customers really are. Especially regarding the fact that some of our products are not accessible to customers, our VR concept allows for really unusual and rare insights into out-of-reach areas,“ explains Andreas Schierenbeck, CEO Thyssenkrupp Elevator.

It seems then that like Audi and Adidas, this move to VR is as much about providing customer convenience as it is showcasing products. As retail space becomes more difficult to find and prices rise it’s technology like VR that will ensure brands like these can continue to penetrate key markets and connect with their customers.

 

So, is VR the future for showrooms?

It’s difficult to say whether VR will be widely adopted as the future of showrooms although the three case studies above are an exciting and encouraging start. Who knows if things like holograms could be introduced in the future – removing the need for a headset completely.

For me at least there’s still a feeling that VR is a bit gimmicky. It costs a lot of time and money to make a genuinely good VR experience which is why I see VR still as a future (rather than now) showroom concept, despite it being used by brands like Audi and Adidas currently. As more software is developed and the price drops we may see it being adopted more widely. The concept is certainly there but the execution is usually what lets it down.

If anything, it gives us something to aim for. It’s unlikely that Adidas or Audi will roll this out globally anytime soon and it will be years before VR showrooms become the norm, so what can brands do now to integrate digital into their showrooms and at least take one step towards securing a digital future?

The Present – Getting Started with a Digital Showroom

The evolution of the showroom has gone from physical to digital to virtual in the space of six years or so. Although the latest tech like VR will always grab the headlines it’s the technology that was being introduced in 2012 that’s now being widely adopted by brands. That’s where the real opportunity is right now to upgrade your customer experience. For example, Hugo Boss are only just rolling their showroom experience out this year.

As with any project, digital or analogue, it’s important to understand the purpose and the value it will add. Audi wanted to put their showrooms closer to their customer, Tommy Hilfiger wanted to reduce sample costs and accelerate time to market. Once the need has been identified the route to implementation becomes much clearer and easier and a strategy should flow from there.

The key difference between 2012 and 2018 is the technology available. Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss both went for bespoke build software which takes time to build and costs 10’s of thousands if not more. But now there are off the shelf software solutions that have the same functions plus more at a fraction of the price.

Having found the right software to power your digital showroom the vital ingredient is product information. For the more digitally advanced who have solutions in place to organise product information for go-to-market it’s likely you’ll have the relevant information, specs and pictures ready to display in a digital showroom setting. Integrating this with software like aWorkbook will allow you to display it on a big screen where buyers can interact with the product and view presentations and videos and even place orders.

If this is your first foray into digital and you’re still using analogue sales tools like printed catalogues it is still possible to digitise the showroom. Using excel line lists containing product information, these can be fed into a software solution which will create an e-catalogue. Whether you feed the software from a PIM, e-commerce website or excel sheets, as long as you have product information and product images you’ll have everything you need to create a digital showroom experience that competes with the best out there.

Berghaus get digital with aWorkbook

Outdoor clothing brand Berghaus chose to use the aWorkbook software to support their sales team and enhance the showroom experience for their buyers. Using the software on a laptop, sales reps were able to instantly search for and bring up product information and pictures as well as related products. It also gave them the option to project the display onto screen while buyers browsed the showroom and build product assortments as they went along. At the end of the meeting, any products the buyers had chosen could instantly be collated and sent in excel or PDF format in 2 minutes, all from the aWorkbook app.

“aWorkbook gives a really good opportunity to set up a product selection for a specific customer using a specific catalogue and process the order quickly.” Karen Seidel, Berghaus International Operations Manager.

In this example the introduction of digital into the Berghaus showroom enables them to create a smoother and more accurate buying experience as well as sharing more details with buyers about their technical products.

 

So are digital showrooms worth it?

At the time of the Tommy Hilfiger digital showroom our opinion was, and still is that digital showrooming is the way forward. In fact, the message from Daniel Grieder, chief executive of Tommy Hilfiger was clear, digital show-rooming is more efficient and more effective; buyers and sales people like it; it’s not the future, it is the now.

Digitalisation is a massive topic across many industries and the rise of the omni-channel experience is just as important in B2B as it is in B2C. The trends of course first arise in B2C and filter through into B2B, we saw that with e-commerce. It’s evident that’s happening here too. As retailers begin to adopt digital signage and create apps to enhance their stores, brands who want to stay relevant must do the same for their buyers – meaning the digital showroom is here to stay but in which form, we don’t know!

What are your thoughts on the past, present and future of digital showrooms? Let us know by leaving a comment.