KENT, England (Reuters) - South Korean car maker Hyundai (005380.KS) is planning to extend a new way of selling cars that cuts out pushy salesmen by encouraging deals online and displaying models in a shopping mall, a concept that has also caught the eye of rivals.
The number of traditional car dealerships in Europe has been in decline for years as visitors and sales have slumped and as consumers shy away from out-of-town shopping and do more research online.
Retailer Rockar’s experiment has been taking place at the popular Bluewater shopping mall, the fourth biggest in the UK, in an affluent area outside London. It expects the Hyundai store it opened there last November will see 200,000 visitors in its first year, more than all the roughly 160 other Hyundai dealerships in Britain combined.
Rockar has become one of Hyundai’s top retailers in Britain and expects to sell 1,000 cars in its first year of trading. Almost 82,000 new Hyundai cars were registered for the whole of Britain in 2014.
Located next to a Body Shop beauty store, Rockar, which currently displays four cars in the store, attracts a younger, more female clientele: 58 percent of its sales are to women and the average age of a buyer is 39, compared to Hyundai’s usual customer, a male in his late 50s.
Rockar plans to open a second Hyundai store at another mall near London in November and has received numerous calls from other manufacturers, with talks at an advanced stage with one, said managing director Paul Stokes.
“They don’t want to stop at number two,” Stokes said about Hyundai. “We are talking to them about further stores too.”
Rockar’s customer “angels” - mostly women - do not work on commission and are hired for their personality rather than a background in the auto trade, though are fully trained in the Hyundai product range.
Stokes, who used to work for General Motors’ (GM.N) UK brand Vauxhall and has also run traditional dealerships, said Rockar’s main objective is to make buying a car less intimidating.
Almost a quarter of dealerships in western Europe selling mainstream European brands could close by 2020, according to auto industry research firm ICDP, but Asian brands like Hyundai are set to keep growing.
Mazda (7261.T) allows customers in London to avoid dealerships by bringing cars to them at home or work to test while BMW (BMWG.DE) introduced the role of product “genius” last year, although the German luxury carmaker has retained salesmen.
The whole Rockar car purchase takes place online, either via tablet computers in the store or at home or on mobile. It says about half its sales are completed at home or by mobile, often after a solo test drive from the mall’s parking lot.
Many manufacturers already allow you to configure a car online but will then put you in touch with a dealer and hardly any allow direct web sales as they seek to support extensive dealership networks they have built up to sell and service cars.
“The showroom door is not in the physical building. It is online and 90 percent of people are walking out of the digital showroom,” said Steve Young, managing director of ICDP.
Italian brand Dacia said this week it would make its cars available for sale online, allowing customers to choose their preferred dealer to deliver and service cars bought online.
Janet Williamson, an independent consultant who trains car sales staff in Britain, said the role of dealers needs to change to respond to the fact their customers are often better informed than they are: “As people get used to buying bigger items on the internet, it has to go in this direction.”
But ICDP’s Young is not convinced the Rockar success can be widely replicated as mall owners want to retain a broad range of retailers and the rental cost of the selling space is much higher than the traditional out-of-town dealerships.
Taking the concept to continental Europe could also be hampered by the relative scarcity of malls and the fact monthly-financing plans are far less common than in Britain, he said.
Additional reporting by Laurence Frost; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle