At Mercedes-Benz of Novi in suburban Detroit, cars in the showroom are wearing big blue bows, and sales manager Mike Dega is gearing up for a record two months of holiday-season sales.
"It's started right now," Mr. Dega says. "We've got a full court push."
Luxury brands have traditionally used the final weeks of the year to clear out last year's inventory, while stirring up interest for new models. This year, car buyers can expect more and earlier deals. The competition between makers is particularly fierce as the two leading German brands, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, vie for bragging rights as the No. 1 luxury brand in the U.S. market. BMW is looking to wrest back the crown it held last year. It has sold nearly 213,000 cars and SUVs year to date, and trails Mercedes by less than 2,800 vehicles.
Both are rolling out aggressive year-end sales "events" well ahead of the traditional Thanksgiving weekend start.
So confident is BMW in its U.S. market that it is diverting more than 5,000 vehicles from slower-selling European and Asian markets—including popular all-wheel-drive 3 series sedans. To move all that metal, the German manufacturer is offering discounts of up to $3,500 or more, with additional discounts aimed at retaining existing customers, dealers say.
Shopping the Competition
Auto-industry executives keep tabs on which models their target customers are also considering, like this BMW 3 series 'cross-shopping' data from a recent week:
- BMW 3 vs the Mercedes C Class:10% of BMW 3 series shoppers also considered the C Class. 20% of C Class shoppers looked at the BMW 3.
- BMW 3 vs the Audi A4:20% of A4 shoppers also looked at the 3 series. 10% of BMW 3 shoppers considered the Audi.
SOURCE: Edmunds.com, data taken during the week of Oct. 28
The Race for Luxury Car Sales
Sales through the first 10 months of 2012 show Mercedes and BMW in a dogfight. Other high-end brands lag behind, but have grown quickly since the same period in 2011.
Mercedes is countering with similar discounts aimed at keeping customers in the fold, along with deals they hope will prod people to switch from rival brands. Mercedes is also allowing drivers of leased cars to get out of their contracts up to five months early if they agree to take a new vehicle.
Other high-end car makers are joining the fray. Volkswagen AG's Audi brand isn't buying out leases early as part of its "Season of Audi" promotion. But the company says it will waive buyers' first-month payment and security deposit. It is also offering discounted leases or finance rates as low as 1.9% for several of its high-volume models. For example, Audi is now advertising a 2013 A6 model with its Quattro all wheel drive system—list price $50,045—for $559 a month, with $3,690 down.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus brand, which gets credit for turbo charging the luxury-car holiday sell-a-thon concept in the late 1990s, plans to launch its annual "December to Remember" sales push around Thanksgiving. Lexus typically makes its high-volume RX utility vehicle the centerpiece of its sales.
Car shoppers will see so-called "loyalty" and "conquest" discounts in this year's holiday sales campaigns. These deals essentially reward consumers for shopping the competition, even if they intend to stay with the brand they already drive. For example, a customer who owns a Mercedes could get an additional $750 discount for agreeing to buy or lease another. If the same owner went to a BMW showroom, he or she would likely be offered a similar amount to switch teams.
About 20% of shoppers on Edmunds.com who looked at a Mercedes C-Class during the last week of October also looked at a BMW 3 Series, according to data from the site. Among those considering the 3-series, 10% looked at a C-Class, and 10% looked at the Audi A4.
Dealers say discounts specifically tied to retaining existing customers have an impact. "It gives us something else to discuss, to look at a customer and let them know they are special to us," says Robert Camastro, owner of Mercedes of Danbury, Ct.
The loyalty and conquest discounts vary by model and brand. Some Audi dealers are advertising discounts of up to $2,500 if you are trading in a rival luxury brand.
Lincoln, a brand of Ford Motor Co., is offering no-money-down lease deals on its MKX sport utility. Cadillac's deals vary, but the brand is offering no-money-down, $399-a-month leases on its just-launched ATS model, which is designed to compete with the 3 series and Mercedes C Class.
Chase Hawkins, Cadillac's vice president of sales, says the GM brand has two major selling drives year—during summer and the last two months of the year. The deals are better now, he says.
Luxury car makers and dealers are putting extra effort into this year-end sales drive in part because they are more confident than they have been in several years that consumers will respond.
Experian Marketing Services, which assesses consumer sentiment, says its measure of how likely consumers are to buy or lease a new car rose during the first half of 2012 to the highest level since the first half of 2008—before the full force of the financial crisis hit.
The strength of the American auto market relative to Europe and China has encouraged German auto makers to allocate more of their production to these shores. Dealers welcome the extra shipments because, through much of the year, inventories of unsold Audis, BMWs and Mercedes models were still relatively lean. Even with the added vehicles, more expensive, limited-volume models will likely be in short supply. That means the discounting isn't across the board. Audi, for instance, isn't offering significant discounts on its high-performance S models.
For its part, Mercedes won't be offering as generous discounts on its M-Class sport utility as it has in past holiday sales, because the M-Class was just redesigned and is still in relatively short supply.
"We don't need to push as hard on the M," says Stephen Cannon, president of Mercedes' U.S. sales arm. Instead, the focus of the holiday deals will be on the high volume C- and E-class sedans and the GLK sport utility.
Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto-shopping site Edmunds.com, says shoppers looking to grab a 2012 model at a comparatively low price should move fast. "They don't have that much in stock," she says. Less than 10% of C Class sedans on Mercedes dealer lots are 2012 models, she says.
Even people shopping smaller luxury brands could benefit from the head-butting among the big German brands.
Janice Monarrez of Grosse Pointe, Mich., says she and her husband are shopping for a luxury brand replacement for their 12-year-old Volvo S70.
"We were kind of surprised at how much movement there was on prices when we started to talk to the Volvo dealership," she says. They're waiting to see how much better the deals get closer to the end of the month.
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