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Test Driving BMW's First Concept Store in Paris

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Outside BMW's first concept store, in Paris.
Outside BMW's first concept store, in Paris.

If BMW carries through with its plan to revolutionize the car-shopping experience, 10 years from now many of its dealerships won't remotely resemble the kind U.S. consumers are used to seeing along the sides of highways.

Last week, the carmaker unveiled its first "concept store," meant to serve as the model for BMW retail locations for years to come. It chose to launch it in Paris, and since I happened to be in town, I decided to go check it out. Despite some good directions, however, it was a tad difficult to find: Unlike many dealerships in the U.S., this one wasn't bedecked with big colorful flags, giant signs or the otherwise loud calls for attention that people often associate with venues selling cars.

BMW's Paris showroom, in contrast, feels like entering a really posh department store. The sleek, high-ceilinged space is mostly white and equipped with all manner of digital technology, including giant flat-screen panels. It was designed by retail architect Eric Carlson, whose portfolio includes spaces for brands like Tag Heuer, Longchamp and Tiffany & Co. The carmaker intentionally situated it in ones of Paris' hippest shopping locales, a stone's throw away from big luxury brands such as Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Bvlgari and Hermes. This is what those stores would look like -- if they sold cars.

In inaugurating the BMW concept store last week, Ian Robertson, head of sales and marketing for BMW, said in a statement: "The world of retail has changed significantly -- customer behavior, needs and expectations have changed, as well as communication technology." He added that BMW's new retail approach, which it's dubbing "Future Retail" will "entail a whole range of initiatives and tools designed to enhance the customer experience and to set new standards for retail in the automotive industry and beyond."

Further, he acknowledged that BMW is taking a page from Apple's book, and is in the process of introducing to dealers a "Product Genius" that has in-depth knowledge about BMW vehicles and interfaces with consumers using tablets to show product configuration.

"When it comes to recruiting and enabling the right people for the implementation of future retail, we will assist our dealers to attract, develop and retain the industry's best professionals," Mr. Robertson stated. "This is of particular importance for the role of the Product Genius. Throughout all of this and supported by an increased number of customer contact points with our brands, the dealer's role becomes even more essential -- as our face to the customer and the provider of a true, personal and emotional, premium experience."

Walking around the store, it was hard to spot an obvious "genius" -- there actually just weren't that many people around at all, save a few businessmen who had trickled in on their lunch hour. The visitors did seem genuinely interested in the new space and cars on display, which included a BMW Active E, its electric car. But unlike Apple, there was little for consumers to reach out and touch and play with.

The most impressive design element in the store was a plasma screen fitted into the ceiling, hanging in a circular frame over some of the cars, depicting videos of blue sky and trees whizzing by, giving you the impression of speed as you walked around the car.

It was kind of fun too to peruse a retail store attached to the showroom that's devoted to hawking a broad range of BMW-branded wares, some at surprisingly affordable prices, given the location. Golf balls and golf tees could be purchased for under 2 euros, mugs for 15 euros and hats for 20 euros. Besides clothing, there were espresso sets, umbrellas, sunglasses and watches. A number of BMW-stamped toys were available for children, such as 4-euro mini cars, as well as ride-on toys, including a pretty darn cute white BMW Roadster for babies, which will set you back about 200 euro.

Pretty much the only items in the showroom that didn't have prices tacked on them were the cars themselves -- that's a matter left to be discussed with a representative over a cafe au lait and yet-another way these retail stores will be different from the typical dealership.

BMW isn't the first to open a concept store, and not even the first in Paris. What it lacks are some of the more practical offerings used by other brands to bait visitors. Toyota, for example, advertises WiFi in its store window. And Renault, which calls its space La Atelier de Renault, features a restaurant with a 29-euro brunch. That might account for the difference in clientele; I noticed several businessmen milling about in BMW's store, but a range of tourists were trickling into the Renault store, sipping wine and taking pictures.

Oh, and don't expect them in the U.S. anytime soon. The next markets that will get the rollout of Future Retail stores are China, the U.K. and the Netherlands.

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