Buick bounces back with younger buyers

April 12, 2010 http://detnews.com/article/20100412/AUTO01/4120334

Buick bounces back with younger buyers

LaCrosse helps to change image of a brand whose average buyer’s age was once 72

ROBERT SNELL
The Detroit News

Buick, the venerable General Motors Co. brand long maligned as catering to elderly buyers, is enjoying a rebirth in the United States and drawing younger, more affluent buyers, thanks to improved quality and styling. Just a year ago, the brand was headed for the scrap heap until then-GM Chief Executive Fritz Henderson convinced President Barack Obama’s auto task force that Buick was worth saving, particularly in the booming Chinese market, as the automaker shrank from eight to four brands.

"They are making definite improvements in the U.S.," said Aaron Bragman, research analyst with consultant IHS Global Insight in Troy. "They made the right decision. To kill Buick would have been crazy. It’s one of the most important brands in the Chinese market."

Last month, Buick sales in the United States rose 76 percent, and market share of the new Buick LaCrosse sedan climbed to almost 17 percent in the large-car segment, a one-two punch that is meeting Chairman and Chief Executive Edward Whitacre Jr.’s mandate that GM boost sales and market share after bankruptcy.

The LaCrosse sedan is furthering a Buick resurgence that started with the 2008 Enclave crossover, which had its best-selling month in December 2009, two years after debuting. The strong sales convinced GM to add a third shift this month at the plant near Lansing where it is produced.

The average age of a Buick buyer has fallen from 72 several years ago to 65. That figure is trending lower ahead of the launch of the Buick Regal midsize sport sedan this spring.

"The perception is changing — I don’t want to say it’s done yet because perception takes a period of time and consistency," said auto analyst Erich Merkle of Autoconomy.com in Grand Rapids. "I’m seeing consistency out of Buick, but it’s going to take more time."

Not all is well with the brand. Sales of the third vehicle in Buick’s lineup, the Lucerne, are down 15.6 percent this year.

Appealing with technology

Buick is catering to buyers in their 40s, 50s and 60s by displaying new vehicles at events like food and wine festivals. But the push to lure younger customers is more than mere marketing. Buick is building vehicles loaded with technology such as DVD players, navigation systems and higher content that yields larger average sale prices.

"We identified a marketing opportunity and built cars for that demographic population," said Craig Bierly, Buick’s product marketing director. "We were probably a little late doing it, but we are looking to broaden our base."

So far, the tactic is working.

Almost 29 percent of LaCrosse buyers are under 55 — more than double the percentage that bought the prior model.

The LaCrosse, sales of which rose 236 percent in March, is seen as a less conspicuous luxury vehicle for buyers concerned about driving Mercedes and Lexus brands during a recession, dealers say.

"The recession’s gotten to them. People who own a small business, they’ve been through an incredibly tough time, cutting wages, and they’re going to buy a brand new Mercedes?" said Farmington Hills dealer Sam Slaughter. "It doesn’t feel right. We’re seeing people downsize and downgrade, but they don’t want to give up having a navigation system and heated seats."

The new LaCrosse is fetching an $8,354 higher price tag than the 2009 model.

"The quality of the buyer demographic is good, but more important is achieving sales results and the desired profitability while spending little on incentives," Bierly said. A quarter of LaCrosse buyers are trading in non-GM vehicles, according to the automaker, which says buyers are drawn by exterior styling, value and reliability.

Rochester Hills resident Chris Bishop traded in a Toyota Camry last fall and bought a LaCrosse, drawn by the sedan’s styling and "stunning" interior that he calls a departure from the brand’s reputation.

"I wanted to go back to a GM product, but when I looked around before, I didn’t see anything that said, ‘Hey, buy me,’ " said Bishop, 40, president of a software consulting firm. "When you think about Buick over the past 15 years, it wasn’t a brand that stirred a lot of emotion from a styling standpoint. But the LaCrosse drove me back."

New vehicles important

Though sales are up, Buick began its resurgence with a small base, Autoconomy.com’s Merkle said.

"They were whittled down to so few vehicles, they really had no place to go but up," he said.

The brand’s lineup, however, is poised for expansion. Buick will unveil a compact sedan in the next 18 months and, later, a smaller version of the Enclave.

"We’re moving the brand into more traditional volume segments where there is a greater opportunity and where traditionally we haven’t played," Bierly said.

The true test of Buick’s success in America will come following the launch of the Regal this spring and of the compact sedan, Bragman said.

"You have to change the product before you can change opinion," he said. "It’s still too soon to really come to a verdict on how Buick is doing in the U.S. But nobody can say those are old person’s cars anymore. Because they aren’t."

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