LOS ANGELES – U.S. dealerships of the near future are expected to use large interactive video screens, virtual-reality headsets and the like to move the metal.

Relying on high-tech visuals with dedicated software and advanced analytics to sell cars “won’t blow up the (dealership) system,” says Jeff Hood, partner-interactive experience and mobility practice for IBM Global Business Services.

But it will change it.

Virtual-reality show-and-tell presentations of products will lead to the thinning out of dealer lots in the U.S., Hood says at the 2015 Automotive Customer Centricity Summit here. “Over time, we’ll see a gradual reduction in dealership inventory.”

He adds, “Europe relies on digital much more to sell vehicles. They don’t have big parking lots full of inventory like we have here.”

IBM offers software for what Hood calls cognitive mobile shopping, a system that quickly learns the likes and dislikes of a user. It gives a car shopper greater control of the buying experience.

With the same thing in mind, many dealerships now regularly use computer tablets throughout the store. Hood envisions dealers going a step further with the latest technology.

He describes what sounds like a virtual showroom within an actual showroom.

People swipe or click to see and configure vehicles on large screens. “Essentially you have the screen, software and a controller for customer interaction,” Hood tells WardsAuto. “An Audi dealership in New York has one.”

Audi also is testing what it calls the “Audi VR experience.” It allows customers to “configure their preferred car at the dealership through virtual-reality headsets and experience it in an unprecedentedly realistic way,” the luxury automaker says.

The headset showcases the entire Audi portfolio, including all possible equipment combinations. Audi is the first automaker to develop such dedicated retail software.

High-tech sideshows highlighting vehicles aren’t limited to dealerships.

BMW has set up a virtual display at a shopping mall in Costa Mesa, CA. “It’s designed to go after tech-savvy people,” Hood says. “You could set up the same thing in an airport.”

The dealership of tomorrow inevitably will become the dealership of the past. That’s just the way it is.

“The last-best customer experience becomes the consumer’s minimal expectation the next time,” Hood says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com