Sunday, May 06, 2012

Middle class eager to buy cars in congested China; automakers try to keep up with demand

By Alisa Priddle

Detroit Free Press 

BEIJING -- Juan Lu and her husband, Jun Gao, can't suppress their new-car grins. The young Chinese couple have taken delivery of their first car, a Ford Mondeo midsize sedan, from a Ford dealership in western Beijing. They are part of a burgeoning middle class that wants to trade in their subway tokens for their own wheels to get Lu to work at the hospital and Gao to his government job, and also take them away for a weekend holiday.
Automakers like Ford and Fiat-Chrysler are racing to establish themselves in China to meet this growing demand while dominant players such as General Motors, Volkswagen and Hyundai invest to maintain their leadership.
While growth has slowed in the world's largest market, the sheer volume and sales potential mean no one can afford not to compete in China. There has always been wealth in China. With a population of 1.3 billion, there are more than a million millionaires and the number keeps growing, making it a target-rich environment for large luxury vehicles with hired drivers and sumptuous backseats.
Driving is a harrowing experience
China is a country where driving is not for the faint of heart, especially in major cities, but that has not curbed consumer appetite for vehicles. The congestion -- it can take hours to travel a short distance in Beijing -- has bred precision driving skills on roads where pedestrians, bikes, scooters and odd three-wheeled minicars give way to larger luxury cars and alpha buses that blare their horns incessantly to warn everyone to move aside.
The overarching rule: first is right, meaning the vehicle closest to a gap in traffic goes for it. Lane markings and red lights are mere suggestions. Against all logic, left-hand turns are executed from the far-right lane in an asphalt dance where the spaces between vehicles and their surroundings are measured in inches. Near-misses are constant, actual accidents surprisingly rare.
Into this mix now wade an excited Lu and Gao, both 30, who live frugally and have saved for their first car for as long as they can remember. They bought a Mondeo because it cost less than the Volkswagens, Hondas or Buicks they researched online. "Our friends bought a Mondeo and recommended it," Lu said. "We picked Ford because the Mondeo price is affordable and the car is very big, safe, spacious and good for family use."
Word of mouth and Internet comparisons are as important in China as in any mature market.
They paid 150,000 yuan, or renminbi (RMB) in cash, about $23,834. Credit is available in China, but less than 20% trust or use it. Lu and Gao got financial assistance from their parents instead.
Lotteries for licenses
The couple won the lottery in February -- the one that gave them a license plate. Megacities like Beijing and Shanghai with populations of about 20 million and 23 million, respectively, are addressing traffic gridlock and smog by restricting license plates.
Beijing issues 20,000 new plates a month. Would-be car buyers stand a 1-in-32 chance of securing a plate that allows city driving six days a week. The last number on the plate determines the days the car can enter the city. Driving on the unauthorized day can be punished by a fine or even imprisonment. In Shanghai, 8,000 plates are auctioned monthly and sell for an average price of 45,300 RMB or $7,200.
Lu and Gao beat the odds and won a license plate in the February draw. They ordered their new Mondeo in April from Zhangqi Furui Ford. "Furui" means lucky, said sales manager Wen Gao Jiang. The model they wanted was not among the roughly 100 vehicles in stock so they waited 10 days for it to arrive. Delivery day provided a joyous excuse to be late for work.
Both have their driver's licenses -- no small feat in China where there is a series of about 10 stations to pass, including written and driving examinations, as well as sight, hearing, strength and flexibility tests, involving squats and other calisthenics that may take westerners by surprise.
But Lu said she might leave most of the driving to Gao."I'm not good at it," she said with a shy smile. Zhangqi Furui is one of about 400 Ford dealerships in China. That will grow to 700 by 2015.
"Overall, Beijing car sales are down more than 50%," said Jiang, who has sold cars for almost six years. He insists the Ford dealership is not down as much as the competition and hopes to see sales double in the next few years with the new Focus and four utility vehicles in the lineup.
Spinning wheel in service department
Customers who spend 1,000 RMB (about $160) on service at Zhangqi Furui can spin a wheel for a chance to win a prize or gift to show customer appreciation. Jiang said service brings in 70% of revenue. When between 60% and 70% are first-time buyers in China, first impressions are crucial. That is why Ford doesn't want to add more than two dealerships a week, to ensure it is done right, said Joe Hinrichs, president of Ford Asia-Pacific and Africa. But he knows 400 dealers in a country of 1.3 billion people means accessibility is limited.
At a flagship Buick dealership in the eastern part of Beijing, the showroom and service areas are massive. The dealership sold 1,200 vehicles in 2011 with about 11 salespeople and another 77 staffing the 45 service bays and paint shop that service about 36,000 vehicles a year.
Tea and massages
Common waiting areas have room for extended families, including grandparents, who pick up the new car or spend part of the day waiting for their car to be serviced. There are VIP lounges for elite business clients with formal tea service areas and high-end massage chairs to work muscles from head to toe.
There are 3.7 million Buick owners in China and 60% of sales are high-end, said Jean Liu-Barnocki, brand director for Buick China, which has 114 dealerships offering full coverage in larger tier 1 and 2 cities and 50% coverage in smaller tier 3 cities. "We try to standardize the sales process from the way we welcome them into the showroom to the sales process and even the walk through the dealership," Liu-Barnocki said.
GM will expand its retail network from 2,900 in 2011 to 3,500 this year, including the Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac and the new Chinese Baojun brand, said Kevin Wale, president of GM China. To meet demand, CEO Dan Akerson said GM is on track to boost production capacity in China to 5 million vehicles a year by 2016.
Growth will come from smaller cities
GM is determined to hang onto its No. 1 sales status in the country by expanding into midsize cities in China's interior to make up for a drop-off in cities like Beijing because of the license restrictions.
An Ernst & Young report said the restrictions will continue to dampen vehicle sales. Large cities like Beijing could see half their dealerships go out of business with smaller domestic Chinese automakers taking the brunt of the pain. But it has to be done, said Yale Zhang, managing director of Automotive Foresight in Shanghai.
Beijing now has 70 cars for 1,000 people and almost total gridlock. In the U.S., there are more than 700 cars per 1,000 people. But that density is just not feasible in China's megacities. "Beijing's congestion can't handle it," Zhang said.

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