Co-Founder and CEO,
Spryker Systems

Vehicles are a significant expense for the average household or business buyer. The average cost of a new car hit a record high in the US at the end of 2022. Yet mobility is returning after the pandemic and consumers want to buy. How they buy is another matter. Evidence suggests car dealerships are a less attractive option for customers these days. But online channels aren’t appealing either. That could be because of the static, legacy user experience most sites still offer.

The answer could be visual commerce: New capabilities allowing prospective buyers to take a virtual tour around vehicles before they buy. While not a replacement, it could be a useful tool to augment the buying process and get more customers into showrooms.

Back on the Road

After the lockdowns of the pandemic era, people are travelling more again despite the popularity of hybrid working. Total vehicle miles travelled (VMT) in 2022 exceeded 3.1 trillion miles in the US last year, a 9% increase on 2020 when COVID-19 was in full swing. The good news is that intent to purchase new and used cars was already back to pre-pandemic levels as of 2021. But with the cost of vehicles surging, customers want to be sure they’re making the right decision with these purchases. The average new car sold for $48,681 in November 2022, over $2000 more than the same period a year previously.

Unfortunately, the buying experience itself is proving to be something of a roadblock to bigger sales. A 2021 McKinsey report claims that globally, car buyers are becoming “less inclined” to visit car dealerships. Yet at the same time, interest in buying cars online hasn’t increased since before the pandemic. Why? Most likely because the digital buying experience on many sites is outdated, clunky and unintuitive.

Why the B2B Automotive Industry Needs Visual Commerce

This is where visual commerce could help. The catch-all term refers to any online technology that helps buyers to visualize the products they’re looking for—including tools and techniques like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), virtual photography and displaying user-generated content in product pages.

Some sectors are already using visual commerce to enhance the customer/buying experience. Amazon’s AR app enables shoppers to virtually overlay products in real-world locations like their home or office, to see what they look like on siteVehicle dealers and manufacturers are playing catch-up. Yet there are some clearly beneficial use cases for the sector. Virtual commerce could be especially useful in a B2B context, enabling buyers of vehicle fleets to visualize how they would fit in building loading bays and/or see trunk and loading capacity.

These visualization capabilities could also make the buying experience more “sticky” by enabling shoppers to see and experience a wider variety of vehicles than they would in a showroom. Websites and apps could also be designed to visualize customization options, enhancing the buying experience and nudging prospective customers further along the sales journey.

An Omnichannel Experience

It’s clear that visual commerce is no longer a nice-to-have for automotive players. The global ecosystem for AR and VR in the automotive industry is expected to be worth over $1.2 billion this year, having recorded a double-digit CAGR over the past few years. In fact, some early movers are already delivering impressive experiences. Jeep offers a virtual walkaround of a product which can be personalized for each buyer, for example.

Yet there are some experiences which visual commerce will not replace. Buyers ultimately want to see, touch and test drive the vehicles they’re interested in. Digital visualization can play a valuable role in encouraging them to get down to a showroom, to “kick the tires” in person. But it’s unlikely that anyone would buy before they’ve had a chance to try the physical experience. A good example of how this omnichannel experience could work in practice is CASA SEAT in Barcelona: a slick workspace and showroom in the carmaker’s home city which helps to blend digital and physical, enabling shoppers to continue their buying journey by arranging test drives at the site.

A More Flexible Approach to Digital Commerce

Visual commerce could be a major step forward for automotive manufacturers and dealerships. But to integrate this online experience into traditional sales channels, they need a flexible and composable digital commerce platform in place. What does this mean in practice? It means being able to seamlessly choose and add visual commerce—or any other capabilities—to their website or apps as required. It’s a highly customizable, best-of-breed approach which enables businesses to move at the speed of the market.

It’s something organizations that rely on monolithic off-the-shelf platforms simply can’t do. As buyer demands evolve, those stuck with these old, inflexible offerings will be left behind. They’ll be stuck at the lights as their competitors use digital commerce composability to accelerate away.