While we in the UK are beginning to wrap our heads around online car purchasing, Chinese retail and tech giant Alibaba has stepped the game up in its home country. It will soon begin to offer customers there a novel way to buy a new car – by installing giant, cat-shaped vending machines at the side of the road.
That's right – Chinese consumers in Nanjing and Shanghai will be able to buy a new vehicle almost instantly, just by operating a few switches.
Before they can use the vending machines, interested customers must have a score of over 700 on China's Zhima Credit system. They must also be an Alibaba Super Member. Once they've downloaded a dedicated smartphone app, the vending machine becomes available – with potential buyers able to take vehicles on a three-day test drive, or buy it outright.
To prevent abuse of the system, users are restricted to one test drive of each vehicle and are permitted no more than five test drives in two months.
It's not just small, unknown brands that will feature in these vending machines, either. Premium manufacturers such as Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volvo are all pegged to participate in the scheme.
"Our thinking behind the Car Vending Machine is focused on helping users solve certain problems they face in the car-buying process," said marketing director of the Alibaba-operated Tmall's automotive group, Huan Lu.
"To do that, we are building a physical, experiential store that offers staffless car pickup through facial-recognition, three-day 'deep' test drives and a one-stop shop that displays all mainstream brands at once."
Alibaba intends to roll the scheme out across China, should the initial pilot prove successful – though it may be a while before we see giant cats dispensing cars at the side of UK roads.