Financial salesmen and car dealers are going multimedia, says Tom Pullar-Strecker
Insurance companies, mobile phones, second-hand cars. What do they have in common? The unshakeable image of pushy salesmen selling dodgy products. At least, that is what the companies seem to feel, judging by last week's British Interactive Multimedia Association (BIMA) retailing awards.

Many of these "problem" services have taken to multimedia with gusto, having apparently decided the answer to their low public esteem lies not so much in changing their services as in improving their presentation. Their chosen weapon is the kiosk - a box with a computer and a touch screen linked to CD-Rom drives and high-quality video and audio. You can view company advertisements, choose the colour of your car, and bone-up on various finance options before you even see a salesman.

In this year's competition, of which I was a judge, there was an attempt to address a real customer need. "A recent survey showed that people would rather have their teeth drilled than go to a car dealer," says Steve Dobson, general manager of multimedia at Camden Motors.

"Car Shop", which came second, is designed to minimise the amount of time a potential buyer has to look around dealers. Kiosks, located round the country (there are currently two, at Barclays' offices in Northampton and Poole) are linked by an ISDN line to Camden Motors' headquarters. Customers use these to find if a suitable car is in stock at any of the company's dealers. If they see something they like, they tell the computer and the vehicle is delivered to a local dealer. Camden Motors has sold 150 cars this year using the two kiosks. Nine out of 10 test drives arranged using the system have led to a sale, as opposed to the industry average of two out of three. "We can see these kiosks in Sainsbury's, we can see them in Halfords," Mr Dobson says.

The winner of the BIMA award is Andersen Consulting, which designed a system to help the Nationwide Building Society sell its financial services. Nationwide's terminals act as a glorified pocket calculator with pictures, showing customers how much their monthly mortgage payments would be. It includes video-conferencing links that let users quiz Nationwide staff from the terminal. Technology for its own sake maybe, but the system won marks for identifying financial services as an area where new thinking is needed. According to Mark Guest, a senior manager at Andersen Consulting, it could be expanded to provide information such as the addresses of removal companies.

So far, Nationwide has installed 20 interactive terminals in 10 of its branches, but it is considering using the technology to collar customers before they enter its branches, perhaps by installing kiosks in post offices. The virtual shopping centre with rows of kiosks - lined up back-to-back with video games for the children to play on - is the logical extension of this vision. It could be an alternative to an era of home shopping via the Internet.

One of the less ambitious entrants in the competition was based around Philips' CD-I technology. It allows visitors to Volvo showrooms to view different models in different colours or with different accessories.

Matthew Parkin, product manager for Volvo's 850 Series, explains: "Cars are increasingly built to order and many dealers are going to have virtually no stock in the showrooms, so there is a lot more difficulty showing customers exactly what they want."