Buzzword or business plan? Metaverse car sales are digital retail to the extreme

Man wearing VR goggles in a car

Back in March 2022, after successfully completing the first car deal in the metaverse, Brian Kramer (via LinkedIn) posited: 

“The Metaverse will definitely be the biggest tipping point auto retail has ever experienced in the coming years, but it’s also just the next evolution of what many now call ‘Digital Retail’.”

Likely, the metaverse will become another aspect of the omnichannel experience. Emergen Research points out its ability to “bridge the gap between dealership[s] and customers opting for online purchasing of cars.” It can facilitate more detailed virtual tours of cars as well as more engaging interactions with salespeople. It could combine the distinct benefits of online and in-store retailing into a single metaverse experience. 

So is the concept of selling cars in the metaverse just a PR stunt and a fun gimmick, or is it a viable—if not decade-away—milestone in your dealership’s omnichannel digital retail strategy?

The answer will of course vary based on the digital readiness of your company and your customer base, but the metaverse is quickly evolving from buzzword to business plan. 

What is the metaverse?

The metaverse is a spectrum of online and virtual reality experiences. In some contexts, you’re interacting with the metaverse just by reading the article online. Attending a webinar? That’s a metaverse-hosted event. Even holding a video call can fall under the metaverse umbrella. 

A person plays a metaverse racing game

But in a more focused definition, the metaverse is “a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection” Wikipedia explains, accessed via virtual reality and augmented reality headsets. Facebook rebranding as Meta embodies their drive to bring a more immersive online-virtual-social world. You may have also heard of Decentraland, an immersive virtual world and community in which users can play games, socialize, do business, and deal in cryptocurrency and NFTs. 

Opinions and predictions on the metaverse range broadly. While digital real estate sales have come under scrutiny, it’s not just digital assets for sale in this VR world. Sales workflows for real assets, including cars, can happen with full legitimacy.

Germain Automotive makes the first metaverse car sale

Brian Kramer caught the attention of metaverse fans and auto retailers when he conducted the first car deal in the metaverse while general manager for Germain Automotive—which uses Upstart Auto Retail throughout all 13 of its dealership locations— in Naples, FL. In March 2022, Kramer (now a VP at Cars.com) conducted the deal in a virtual office environment, while he, his team, and his client donned VR headsets in their distinct respective locations. 

In a conversation with Automotive State of the Union, Kramer laid out some of the challenges, such as managing patience as metaverse technology stresses internet connections. But all in all, the deal went off without a hitch. 

Whether customers will prefer this concept of sitting in a virtual office instead of handling things from a more familiar computer or mobile device app is yet to be discovered. But capability and availability of this transaction style was the point—and this stunt made a splash in the industry, no doubt. In the ASOTU interview, it’s made clear that metaverse car sales isn’t an all-in pivot, but rather an exploration of omnichannel car-buying experiences. 

“…90+% of our clients utilize at least one element of our Digital Retail tool, such as Virtual Appraisals, Virtual Credit Applications, Virtual F&I Interviews, F&I Menu Presentations, etc.,” Kramer explains to ASOTU. His metaverse experiment essentially pushes the boundaries of digital retail to offer a competitive spectrum of buying experiences to customers. But with only 10% or fewer of his customers forgoing a digital retail touchpoint, it would seem he’s hitting the mark for optimal customer experiences even without offering the metaverse option. 

In fact, Kramer details his metaverse-enabling tech stack, calling out his digital retail tool: “The digital “plumbing” combined our Upstart Digital Retail tool [Upstart Auto Retail], our VinSolutions CRM, RouteOne & CDK.”

Germain Automotive digital retail case study banner

OEMs explore metaverse car configurators

CBT News calls out some recent OEM-level initiatives in metaverse car buying experiences:

  • Audi partnering with 4D Pipeline to bring VR experiences to 1,000+ dealerships
  • BMW build-and-drive simulations
  • Porsche VR-headset metaverse tours of the Taycan EV
  • Hyundai’s Roblox (a metaverse style gaming platform) test drive experiences
  • Nissan adding augmented reality capabilities for better connected car experiences

These diverse initiatives show how manufacturers with healthy R&D and marketing budgets—are exploring ways to engage consumers in their vehicles without them actually getting behind the wheel. As these technologies trickle down from one-off experiential events, research projects, and novelties, there’s strong reason to believe they’ll begin transforming the way showrooms look, feel, and operate. 

The metaverse could provide new frontiers for OEMs and retailers alike to offer car customizations, digital twin vehicles for VR gaming, VR test drives and tours, or even enhanced security features by leveraging blockchain and ID verification. Auto manufacturing may be the first segment of the industry to dive deep in the metaverse, using it to mockup and test assembly lines, design, ergonomics, and aesthetics. The metaverse could also be used to train service technicians without investing in real-world inventory. 

Take the current inventory shortage scenario, for example. You want to sell a customer on a  car but you don’t have any in stock. How do you show it off? Dealers can manually add a vehicle to their digital retail tool, upload factory pictures of a nearly identical make and model, and show their customer a similar build. Alternatively, if there’s a similar model on the lot, the sales consultant can give the car buyer a virtual tour using their iPad. 

Download the inventory shortage playbook for dealers

Today, you can use in-store digital retail tools to give a look at a similar vehicle. But with future metaverse technology, you could put a headset on the customer and get them behind the wheel virtually. Imagine the enthusiasm for factory orders after “stepping out” of a virtual test drive.  

Perhaps your next showroom won’t have a street address, but an IP address. 

How does your dealership join the metaverse?

The first step in preparing to enter the metaverse is getting your digital automotive retail program up and running. Upstart Auto Retail—which Germain Automotive used as part of their monumental metaverse car deal—provides a comprehensive solution for online and in-store sales workflows. It also provides manager tools and integrations with CRM, F&I, trade-in, and other software for a seamless experience at every stage. 

From there, building a “Dealership Digital Twin” brings your business to virtual life, explains Infosys via Digital Dealer. This digital twin can be an environment to handle digital money, or cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, although standard currency and transactions can still happen easily enough. 

Girl putting on a VR headset

Infosys goes on to explain that metaverse dealerships will need to evolve to be not just transaction environments, but experiential hubs, and facilitate metaverse-level marketing in the real world and other metaverse communities. 

Additional technology capabilities are necessary to facilitate smooth operations, and those will likely be built and packaged in more accessible ways in the coming years. Will you need to promote your internet sales manager to metaverse manager? Perhaps. 

In the meantime, embracing digital automotive retail gets you most of the way to the benefits of the metaverse, falling short of blocky 3D graphics and VR headsets. But for meeting car buyers where, when, and how they want to shop—on the phones, tablets, computers, and seamlessly between device and showroom—Upstart Auto Retail equips your website, sales teams, managers, and F&I office to conduct digital and remote deals. 

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