Amazon's Hyundai move shows deep understanding of shoppers

The magic of retail centers is on knowing and understanding shoppers better than they know themselves, and Amazon is brilliant at it

Hyundai fuel cell SUV

The 2016 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell SUV.

Credit: Hyundai

The magic of retail these days is not that different from what it was 50 years ago. It always centers on knowing and understanding shoppers better than they know themselves. That means either positioning the higher-margin cereals at eye level or knowing what products will move best in different months. Amazon has been positively brilliant about this online, but we're now seeing proof that it can bring it in the physical world, too.

Here's what Amazon did. It announced a promotion with Hyundai, where a Prime membership entitles a shopper to an Elantra test drive. This isn't about the fact that any bum can get a free Elantra test drive without Amazon's help (car salespeople aren't too picky in this economy). This is about how that test drive happens.

Amazon understands that many consumers are hesitant to go into a car dealership unless they are fully ready to buy. The dealership is perceived as the ultimate home of the hard sell. Amazon — and Hyundai, presumably — has figured out that if the showroom isn't part of the picture, many more people would be willing to do a test drive. Then, if they're sufficiently impressed, they might visit the dealer.

What Amazon has crafted is to deliver the car to the shopper. No showroom. No pressure. Just a test drive. To be fair, that dreaded hard sell isn't far away, since the car needs to be returned to the car dealership. That is still light-years better than the typical interaction. If I walk in for a test drive, I have no leverage to avoid sitting through a sales pitch. But if the car is merely being returned, consumers are likely to think they have a better chance to escape by leaving the keys, pointing to the car and running away.

Hyundai is banking on people loving the ride so much that they actually want to hear more details about it.

All in all, this is an impressive step in the right direction.

It's fair to point out that this offer is highly limited. I personally had to try nine ZIP codes from across the country before I stumbled onto one in Los Angeles that worked. I was then offered a wide range of delivery time slots for a 45-60-minute test drive.

It also gave me an interesting series of additional requirements: "By checking this box, I confirm that I am 21 years of age or older and hereby agree to allow Amazon to submit the information on this page to DriveShop, LLC for the purpose of scheduling and conducting a test drive, and that Amazon or a third party working at Amazon’s direction may film my test drive in Amazon’s sole discretion."

The age requirement is standard procedure for many dealerships, but the filming part is interesting. Is this something done by the Hyundai salesperson who delivers the car, or are there hidden cameras in the vehicle? And note that the discretion lies with Amazon, rather than Hyundai. That's where this gets interesting. Although it will certainly feel like a Hyundai marketing effort, make no mistake that this an Amazon project.

Amazon executives talk a lot about their attempts to revolutionize retail. With this Hyundai effort, they may be actually doing it.

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