July 16 (Bloomberg) -- Volkswagen AG's premium Audi brand is unveiling a London showroom featuring giant LED screens that let customers design their own vehicles, part of the carmaker's effort to bring in younger, media-oriented buyers.
The Audi City outlet, opening today at Piccadilly Circus, is the first of a network the company is planning by 2015 for 20 "affluent locations" in Europe, China, Russia and the U.S., said Sven Schuwirth, head of brand development. Drivers can see a full-size mock-up of the model on screen as they choose colors, materials and accessories, and can then order the car.
The VW unit overtook Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz brand last year as the world's second-largest maker of luxury vehicles by sales, and it has a target of eventually beating Munich-based industry leader Bayerische Motoren Werke AG. The electronic car- design showrooms, while not linked to the Web, are targeting a growing clientele that's used to choosing products online, Schuwirth said in an interview.
"Audi City emerged from the fact that 80 percent to 85 percent of clients nowadays inform themselves via the Internet before deciding on a purchase," Schuwirth said at Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany. "It addresses the need of customers to actively search for information prior to buying."
Customers at an Audi City showroom can choose features for their car on a touch-screen monitor, with the result projected life-size on a large LED screen. Sales staff armed with Apple Inc. iPad tablet computers will be available to help buyers use the system or complete the order through an established dealer.
Potential clients will be able to store a draft design on a USB memory device with limited capacity to change vehicle-option data on home computers, though any image of the alterations will only be visible at the Audi City site.
The German carmaker has spent a "low two-digit-million euro" figure developing the software, Schuwirth said in the July 6 interview. Outlets' costs will be shared by Audi and the local dealer. The London site's retail partner is Penske Automotive Group Inc.'s Sytner division.
"We're not really saying that this kind of showroom is made for increasing sales immediately," sales chief Peter Schwarzenbauer said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. "What we really want to achieve is that this becomes a point where Audi fans can meet; where we can reach out to a completely new target group, the digital natives, where they can find a way to experience the brand."
BMW has added electronic and fashionable urban components to its distribution network to win younger drivers, opening a store near the Champs-Elysees in Paris in May that offers a version of a driving simulator. The German carmaker is also assigning tablet-toting accessory experts labeled "geniuses" to its 3,000 dealerships worldwide.
The effectiveness of the computer-oriented marketing strategy hasn't been proved yet, said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany.
"Audi and BMW's customers are in their 50s, on average," Dudenhoeffer said in a phone interview. "The vehicles are too expensive for younger buyers. Premium carmakers won't attract new clients just because they are now present in the inner cities."