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Technology Cadillac introduces first-of-its-kind digital car-shopping experience

Cadillac Live is an online shopping experience that connects potential customers with the automaker's brand ambassadors in a virtual space.

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Cadillac is bringing digital car shopping into another dimension.

Cadillac Live, launching exclusively in Canada on March 21, connects online shoppers for video conversations with the automaker’s brand ambassadors at a showroom in Toronto. The ambassadors can answer questions and physically show customers around vehicles, then direct them to a nearby dealer if they’re interested in buying.

The company is touting the free service as the first of its kind in North America.

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“It’s one-part personal shopper, one part live and interactive showroom,” says Hoss Hassani, Cadillac Canada managing director.

The service will be accessible through Cadillac.ca and operate from 6 p.m. Eastern time until 2 a.m., Sunday to Thursday. About eight or nine ambassadors will be on staff at any given time to show off and answer questions about the 10 vehicles in the showroom.

Each will be armed with a gimbal-mounted iPhone, which can be used to stream video as requested. If a customer wants to see the inside of a car’s trunk, for example, the ambassador can mount his or her phone on a chest harness and use their hands to open it for a peak inside.

To maintain privacy, the customer can see who they’re speaking with, but the employee can’t see them. The customer can also choose to have a text-based conversation instead of speaking verbally.

Customers who want to use Cadillac Live outside of operating hours can either make an appointment online or watch generic prerecorded tours of vehicles. The company says it has the capacity to quickly add more brand ambassadors if the service proves more popular than expected.

While the service is using video conferencing technology, Hassani admits it isn’t necessarily cutting edge nor efficient compared with replacing human customer service agents with bots to cut costs, or experimenting with virtual reality, as some other automakers are doing.

Since Cadillac is aiming for the luxury segment of the market, the company decided to take the opposite approach.

“The more we go into this world of bots and automated interactions and divorcing people from having real human interactions, the more luxury brands are starting to recognize that there’s a need and desire for those real interactions,” he says. “In many industries today, luxury still is tied to the number of people you have servicing the customer.”

The service comes amid an explosion in online purchasing. About three-quarters of Canadians say they are buying more online than they did three years ago, according to a recent study by eTail Canada. Total e-commerce sales are expected to grow to $55.8-billion by 2020, from $44-billion last year.

A number of car makers, including Tesla and Genesis, have taken steps to enable customers to conduct most, if not all, of their actual purchases online, but Cadillac Live will stop short of that, at least initially. Customers will instead be connected with their closest dealer to make a purchase.

Retail industry observers say the move is part of a hybrid strategy to appeal to younger, more tech-savvy buyers, while also maintaining the physical aspect of shopping. Cadillac Live is at the same time a high-tech service that’s still rooted in face-to-face transactions.

“It marries a concierge service of show-rooming while you’re also in a digital sphere where you’re getting information in a personalized way,” says Dr. Brynn Winegard, an expert in consumer psychology. “While the technology itself isn’t new, the way in which it’s being used is.”

Cadillac developed its service in Toronto in partnership with its ad agency Isobar, then got the go-ahead to try it from the General Motors head office in Michigan. Hassani says a number of Cadillac operations in other countries have expressed interest in adopting the system themselves, so they are watching to see how it’s received.

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Some marketing experts are impressed with what they’ve seen so far and believe the approach could be used in other sectors, such as real estate.

“If I’m in Kitchener-Waterloo and I’m looking to buy a vacation property or move to Vancouver, this type of thing would make perfect sense,” says Geoff Malleck, a professor of economics and marketing at the University of Waterloo. “It’s a very sophisticated and attractive experience. It’s exceptionally well done.”

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