Tesla Motors has taken on the huge challenge of reinventing the car shopping experience – while at the same time delivering what consumers are used to getting when they buy electronic products such as an iPhone. Since 2008, Tesla has opened about 25 retail stores and galleries in North America where consumers can learn about the company's all-electric offerings, and sometimes a test drive, before placing an order.
The concept has taken off well enough to land lawsuits against Tesla by auto dealer state associations in Massachusetts and New York, and Tesla is under threat of lawsuits in at least two other states. The luxury electric carmaker says it's been taking pains to ensure that it's operating within the laws of each state – which can mean limitations on days it can sell cars online, provide test drives or take order onsite.
For George Blankenship, Tesla's vice president of sales and ownership experience, meeting today's customer's shopping experience demands is not a big deal. He's should know. Before coming to Tesla, Blankenship worked at Apple, where he served as vice president of real estate from 2000 to 2006, and, before that, led retail strategy at The Gap. Tesla recruited Blankenship in 2010 to enhance Tesla's retail experiment.
"In shopping malls, people who walk into our stores, they don't even know who we are," Blankenship told SmartPlanet. "People will be walking down the mall and they'll see a car and they're drawn in by that... We're educating, not selling. It's two different things."
Educating shoppers can mean a few different approaches for Tesla's staff at retail stores – how the Model S is good for the environment, its storage capacity, low maintenance and how its instant torque provides a completely different driving dynamic, Blankenship said. The key difference to the in-store experience: "I want people to want the car, I don't want to sell them the car."
Tesla customers seem to understand that their role is different than it has been for car shoppers in the past. If they want a Model S, they'll need to place an order months in advance prior to delivery. For Blankenship and the Tesla team, the retail stores and galleries are there to expand the hands-on experience to more consumers, no matter when the deal is closed.