BMW to sell i3 and i8 online

BMW i3 and i8 whitespace shotWith its “Project i” vehicles, the i3 city car and i8 supercar, BMW is trying to revolutionize the automobile. That includes the way these carbon fiber plug-in hybrids are sold: buyers will be able to order their i3 or i8 online.

With its online sales strategy, BMW is trying to appeal to people who do a lot of online shopping. People do love the convenience of online shopping, and can even be coerced into the occasional eBay splurge, but will they be willing to shell out $48,500 for an i3 or $122,800 for an i8?

BMW seems to think so, and it also thinks online sales will pay dividends for the brand. Selling cars online will increase the company’s profit margins, since those sales don’t require dealer stock, brochures, or other promotional materials. Maintaining a room full of servers will probably be cheaper.

Online sales will also help differentiate the i3 and i8 from the rest of BMW’s line, something the company has been eager to do. BMW sees the i cars as an eco-conscious sub-brand, with the same relationship to the parent company as Mini or Rolls-Royce.

BMW is already opening stores dedicated to the i3 and i8; the first one opened in London July 25. In fact, the cars will be sold exclusively in their own showrooms; you won’t see an i8 rubbing tires with an X5.

So selling the i3 and i8 helps BMW cement its new brand’s identity, and make possibly make a little extra money, but how does that benefit customers? Theoretically, without the overhead of a physical dealership, BMW can lower the price of models sold via the web. Think of it as a paperless discount. However, BMW has not confirmed anything about online prices, or what its online sales site will look like.

BMW really is moving into uncharted territory. Dacia, the Romanian division of Renault, opened its online “Dacia Store” in Italy last year, but that is only a pilot program. Lincoln is expanding its web presence by offering live concierge service, but the actual buying and selling of cars still takes place at dealerships.

How will customers react to BMW’s virtual dealerships? The problem is that BMW is pairing a new sales strategy with a new type of car. The i3 and i8 will be unlike anything the average BMW customer has ever driven. With plug-in hybrid powertrains and carbon fiber chassis, they have little in common with average cars. Confronted with this, wouldn’t a potential buyer want a test drive?