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The New Automotive Model

Citroën C42 showroom, Paris.

On a recent visit to Paris, while strolling down the Champs-Élysées checking out the latest retail shops, the last thing on my mind was cars. But, when I stumbled across the Citroën C42 showroom, I was intrigued. With all the retailers vying for customers’ attention along the prestigious avenue, this building certainly stood out. Right off the bat, the faceted glass façade with light bouncing off the multi-colored panes commands one’s attention. It brings to mind movement, as in driving. (Duh.)

As I ventured down the historic promenade, I visited two other showrooms, for Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot. What struck me about these Paris showrooms, as well as Cadillac House in New York, is that they don’t merely focus on selling cars—instead, they each offer a unique, memorable experience that embodies the manufacturer’s brand.

Once inside the Citroën showroom I realized this was not your ordinary automotive dealership; it takes the car shopping experience to a whole new level. Built in 2007, this eight-story atrium houses round, glossy red platforms on each level, showcasing the latest in Citroën’s collection. But what really caught my eye was the 23 meter high stainless steel slide (that’s right, slide!), which was added in 2014, spiraling down 63 meters from the top floor of the showroom all the way to basement level. The ride down the slide deposits you into the basement level, dubbed the “Playground,” complete with cushy chairs, a green wall and an interactive light installation—a modern take on the “whac-a-mole” game.

Citroën C42 showroom, Paris, including a stainless steel slide.

Tucked in the back on the ground floor is a small retail area where you can buy some model Citroëns, keychains or t-shirts. Although there are digital touch-points throughout the showroom’s various floors aimed at engaging and educating customers about the cars, the main attraction is actually the slide and playground. I sort of wondered what this all had to do with cars, but then again, I didn’t really care. It was fun, and it certainly heightened the customer experience!

As I walked up each of the levels and saw the new, fun and colorful Citroën models with their sleek look and cool detailing, I started to make the equation of Citroën = FUN. Not a bad connection for the brand to make with consumers, quite smart actually. So while I went into the storefront not knowing it was in fact an automotive showroom, I left wanting to buy at least two cars! The new E-Mehari, which is completely revamped from the classic, boxy model we all know, especially caught my eye.

The next showroom I came across was Mercedes-Benz, just down the avenue. While this one was not as fun or interactive as the Citroën space, it was certainly eye-catching, sophisticated and luxurious (as you would expect from Mercedes-Benz). It felt expensive. With color-changing LED lights along almost every wall, and some fantastic cars on display, the showroom itself was like a continuously evolving sculpture, a work of art.

Mercedes-Benz showroom, Paris.

It makes sense—luxurious, expensive, sculptural—again, not a bad connection to the Mercedes-Benz brand. Yes, you could leave with some memorabilia from the small gift shop near the back of the showroom—this one was larger and more prominent than Citroën, but it truly felt like a gift shop in a Mercedes-Benz museum, rather than one of their retail stores. Clearly retail isn’t the key driver here. This experience is all about educating the consumer and elevating brand awareness and following. So while you might not leave with the keys to a new luxury car, you’ll probably leave with a better sense of the brand. It’s about stimulating the consumer and giving them enough information on the brand that will stick with them. So, the next time they go to buy a car, just maybe they’ll think of their experience at the showroom, and they will buy.

The last showroom I encountered was the Peugeot showroom, which opened in 2014. Also sleek and modern, this one has a large round platform dead center, displaying the most recent Quartz concept car, which does not look like any Peugeot you’ve ever seen before. Beyond the relatively simple retail wall—acting more as a backdrop than a feature—there is an interactive digital driving game. Situated at the rear of the store, it acted as a good lure to get customers to travel through the space, and was popular enough that I didn’t even get a chance to play during my visit. It was clear that this space was all about the experience and the feeling of owning (or at least driving) a Peugeot.

Closer to home here in New York City, the recently opened Gensler designed Cadillac House boasts an exceptional customer experience. On a recent visit to the showroom, I noticed that, while there are both current and heritage automobiles on display at any given time, it’s not so much a car showroom as it is a social space. With an indoor/outdoor terrace, several lounge areas, a communal table and even a Joe Coffee bar, it’s really meant to entice people to come inside and linger. Once inside, the full height wall of digital screens and digital clad columns play a loop of Cadillac and lifestyle imagery providing visual entertainment. So the idea is: get people inside or to enjoy a nice day on the “veranda,” have them sit for a bit and sip coffee, and play Cadillac images with surround sound. Brilliant.

Cadillac House, New York. Image © Gensler

Of course, the Cadillac associates are there checking in with visitors to answer any questions and give them the latest brand news. You can leave with a Cadillac memento from the small retail area in the rear of the store, but again, this isn’t really about the sales, it’s about leaving with a better sense of the brand. And I guarantee you will think of Cadillac when you remember your experience there.

So, while I doubt many people go to the Champs-Élysées or SoHo for that matter, to buy a car, the automotive brands are thriving in these metropolitan areas. You can go and learn about the cars and you can have some fun at the same time. Now that’s good for the customer and it’s good for the brands. (A win-win!)

Mark Brungo is a senior associate in Gensler’s New York office and a regional retail practice area leader. A registered architect in New York and Pennsylvania, Mark brings his 25 years of experience to every project, many of which have earned design awards and national recognition. His versatility as a design manager and his excellence in client relationships allows for a smooth project design and delivery process that aligns Gensler’s service goals with the client’s objectives. Contact him at mark_brungo@gensler.com.