Car keys by drone: Coronavirus pushes China's auto industry into new territory

  • Desperate to revive sales decimated by the virus outbreak, carmakers and dealers in China are betting on novel ways to attract customers.
Geely said it will use drones to deliver car keys to customers for contactless buying. (Photo courtesy: Geely)
Geely said it will use drones to deliver car keys to customers for contactless buying. (Photo courtesy: Geely)

In a sign of how the coronavirus is changing car buying, millions of potential Tesla Inc. customers in China just tuned in to a celebrity-led online livestream touting the U.S. company’s vehicles.

Almost 4 million viewers watched the hour-long show on the Taobao shopping platform on Tuesday afternoon, seeing livestreamer and influencer Viya demonstrate Tesla features from the music player to air conditioning, even climbing in to the cargo space of a Model S sedan to show how spacious it is. Viewers were asked to book test drives through the site, with a sales rep calling back within 48 hours to make the arrangements.

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Desperate to revive sales decimated by the virus outbreak, carmakers and dealers in China are betting on novel ways to attract customers. Buyers in the world’s biggest auto market are gradually warming to the idea of buying big-ticket items like cars via apps, social media and livestreaming sites that have become an important part of the e-commerce experience in China, suggesting successful automakers will need not just manufacturing prowess but also expertise in internet marketing to survive in the post-virus world.

“Consumer behavior and habits have changed" amid the pandemic, said Ron Zheng, a partner at consulting firm Roland Berger in Shanghai. “It’s going to be a turning point for online car-selling."

Video Platforms

Brands and dealers are stepping up their presence on video platforms such as Bilibili, Weibo and Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese twin, to launch new models, showcase vehicles, host live broadcasts -- and increasingly to close sales. While such apps and websites were previously used mainly to lure buyers to showrooms, this year’s virus pandemic forced dealers to transform them into their primary sales channels.

Web and app purchases accounted for about a third of China’s new-car sales in the first three months of 2020, up from about a quarter a year earlier, according to consultancy WAYS Information Technology Co.

“The epidemic made it impossible to carry out regular offline sales," said Huang Heng, chief research officer at WAYS. “Carmakers and dealers are gaining some valuable and handy online experience."

Also Read : Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes take online sales route in India amid Covid-19 crisis)

Livestreaming Growth

As the pandemic raged, electric-car maker NIO Inc. organized more than 2,000 livestream sessions to “plant seeds" in potential buyers, co-founder Qin Lihong said in an interview. Part infomercial, talk show, and online message board, livestreaming is an increasingly popular way of selling goods in China, but until now it had largely been the domain of smaller, courier-able items.

Many viewers took a test drive as soon as stores were allowed to re-open, resulting in sales, Qin said. To alleviate any concerns about human contact amid the virus, NIO made changes to the test-drive process: customers now can pick up disinfected cars from where they want, receiving instruction videos and authorization codes to unlock the vehicle. Thanks to such efforts, NIO has kept sales going and its staff has been on full force since initial lockdown restrictions were loosened on Feb. 10.

“China is a market open to new things," Qin said. “Online selling is part of NIO’s DNA."

Drone Delivery

Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd., a pioneer in launching new models via webcasts, started an online service in February to offer buyers a one-stop destination. After choosing vehicle specs, financing and insurance, buyers can opt for a delivery with no human interaction: a driver brings the vehicle to the user’s home or workplace, and a drone then delivers the keys to the customer’s doorstep or balcony. (Read full report here)

In six weeks, more than 10,000 consumers ordered and paid for vehicles on Geely’s online mall with a further 110,000 users registering their interest to purchase a vehicle in the short term.

“Today’s customers are very well-informed," said Roland Berger’s Zheng. “They have access to all the information before they actually see the car."

Even makers of heavy-duty trucks are now finding online efforts successful. Sany Truck’s April 20 livestream of a truck launch won 652 orders in two hours with sales topping 200 million yuan ($28 million), four times that of an online sales event a month earlier, according to the company.

“Automobile e-commerce is the trend for the future," said Huang at WAYS. “It’s only a matter of time."

First Published Date: 30 Apr 2020, 10:21 AM IST

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