Ford, Tmall launch auto ‘vending machine’

Tmall has unveiled China’s first auto “vending machine”, partnering with American carmaker Ford Motor Company for the first phase of a push to upgrade the test-drive experience for Chinese consumers.

The Super Test-Drive Center in Guangzhou offers three-day test drives to potential buyers researching their next purchase, allowing them to choose from more than 100 vehicles, including the Edge, Everest, Explorer SUV and Mustang models.

“We are looking for ways to simplify customers’ lives and give them the ultimate try-before-you-buy experience,” says Ford Asia Pacific VP Dean Stoneley.

The launch is a pilot collaboration between Alibaba Group, which owns Tmall, and Ford since announcing a partnership in December. They plan to use AI, cloud computing, the Internet of Things and e-commerce to “redefine the consumer journey and user experience for automobiles”.

Other than picking up and driving the test car, the entire experience plays out through Alibaba’s mobile e-commerce apps. Users find Tmall’s Super Test-Drive page, browse the available models then choose a time for pick-up. They also snap a selfie with the mobile app, which is used to confirm their booking at the test-drive centre. Test drives cost RMB99 (US$16) or RMB198, depending on the model, but Alibaba Super Members, or customers with a Zhima credit score exceeding 700, do not need to pay.

“Better understanding”

The car vending machine is the latest development in a larger push for New Retail by Alibaba, says Tmall Auto GM of vehicles Gu Wanguo. The New Retail model focuses on user experiences, he says, and access to services such as the test-drive centre will provide a better understanding of particular vehicles while making car-shopping more fun and engaging.

Also, Alibaba’s analytics and marketing resources can be used to help brands and distributors better identify potential car shoppers and their demands, says Gu. Alibaba will release the vending machine’s technology to the entire industry so it can build stronger connections with consumers and support their distributors “in hopes of helping upgrade the automotive sector as a whole”.

Test driving a car is critical to the shopping experience, says senior executive Cao Zhenyu of Changan Ford Automobile, a Ford JV headquartered in Chongqing. However, traditional test drives offered by dealerships are often limited by time, space and available routes.

“If we lengthen the duration of test drives, consumers can make buying decisions with more confidence and ease,” says Cao. “We want consumers to take our cars out traveling and on their daily commutes for them to fully experience our products, and eventually have that translate to sales.”

Targeted strategy

Ford’s Stoneley says the online-to-offline initiative with Tmall is a targeted strategy to drive foot traffic to the company’s showrooms in China. “It’s about having people try Ford vehicles, and ultimately buying the vehicle at a Ford dealership.”

China has been the world’s largest auto market since 2009. While sales growth slowed considerably last year to 3 per cent year on year from the 13.6 per cent seen in 2016, carmakers in the US and Europe have been shifting strategies to attract consumers in a nation that still accounts for 30 per cent of total global car sales.

Partnerships with Tmall have been among those strategies, including companies such as Alfa Romeo, BMW and Maserati.

Ford is Tmall’s exclusive partner for the first phase of the vending machine’s launch. Other partners have yet to be announced, but Alibaba is eyeing Beijing and Hangzhou as possible locations for the next phase.

  • This story originally appeared on, the independent but Alibaba-funded source of news on Alibaba Group activities.

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