Whether it’s sitting in stop-and-go traffic while running errands, standing in a herd of people in an airport security line, or just feeling the low-grade anxiety that comes with limiting mileage in the hope of avoiding surcharges on a leased car, the travel experience often amounts to one big headache. Traditionally, carmakers haven’t cared one whit. As long as customers kept up with their payments on the cars, manufacturers were content to ignore broader problems. But that’s starting to change, because today’s customers are shopping for more than a piece of hardware—they want solutions for their transportation needs.
In an age when consumers are accustomed to short-term cellphone contracts and swapping out their devices whenever another shiny object grabs their attention, automakers are getting more creative with their lease offerings while simultaneously trying to soothe the hassles of daily travel. The latest example comes from Lincoln, which unveiled several new services and expanded a previous one in an announcement at the Los Angeles auto show. The brand’s stated intention is to make things easier for harried luxury-car owners.
The first is a vehicle-subscription service, set to launch in California sometime in 2018. It will allow customers flexible month-to-month leases that let them hop in and out of vehicles far more often than if they were tethered to a years-long contract.
While acknowledging that long-term leases remain a major part of Lincoln’s plan, brand chief Kumar Galhotra commented: “A customer doesn’t need a three-year lease. That just causes anxiety. You pick a vehicle and are stuck with it.”
“A customer doesn’t need a three-year lease. That just causes anxiety. You pick a vehicle and are stuck with it.”
– Kumar Galhotra, Lincoln
Pricing is not yet available, but Lincoln is counting on the program to help the brand gain relevance with a younger client base that, according to Lincoln marketing chief Robert Parker, has assumed control of the marketplace.
“Millennials and Generation X are now driving the marketplace,” he said. “That shift has only occurred in the past 12 to 18 months. They are accustomed to monthly payments, and we want to reinvent leasing for the 21st century.”
Lincoln has struggled to reinvent itself in more general terms. After years of flagging sales numbers, the luxury brand’s long-standing and painstaking efforts to turn itself around finally seem to be paying off. Through the first 10 months of 2017, Lincoln sales figures are the highest in a decade in North America, Galhotra said, while the brand has grown in China from 11,630 units sold in 2015 to 45,729 this year through October.
Of course, the notion of offering flexible leases, whether by offering shorter time frames or by providing the opportunity to change cars frequently, isn’t new. A growing number of carmakers and third-party companies are rolling out similar services, including Volvo, which said Wednesday it will bring its Care by Volvo service to the United States in spring 2018. It allows customers to pay a $600 per-month fee that covers an XC40, service and maintenance costs, and insurance. No down payment is required. Similarly, Cadillac recently started a month-to-month subscription service in select cities called Book by Cadillac, which, for a down payment of $500 and a monthly fee of $1800, provides a car that users can exchange up to 18 times per year.
For Lincoln, the rethinking of seamless and flexible travel doesn’t stop with its subscription pilot. The brand is collaborating with Clear, a company that promises to whisk members to the front of the airport security line. Normally, an annual Clear membership costs $179, but new Lincoln owners will receive complimentary memberships for six months to a year, depending on the trim level of the vehicle they buy.
“Our customers tell us the greatest luxury is not an object, but experiences and time,” Galhotra said. “Where does time get wasted? Standing in line at airport security.”
Further, Lincoln is expanding a pilot project once known as Chauffeur that started in mid-2016 in Miami and San Diego. Executives have scrubbed the original name and rebranded it as Lincoln Personal Driver, and either name suffices for what the project does: provide a vetted driver for a customer who might need someone to drive their vehicle.
At first glance, it may sound unnecessary. But Lincoln says customers have used the program, which costs $30 per hour, to travel to and from medical appointments, to pick up children from college, or even to enjoy a dinner with a spouse while the Lincoln driver runs errands. The services makes customers’ experience “as effortless as possible,” Galhotra said.
If Lincoln intends to help its customers savor their time, there’s no more aggravating time suck than the hours squandered filling out paperwork at a dealership when purchasing or leasing a vehicle. So Lincoln has partnered with 10 dealers around the country to examine ways to upend the car-buying process.
In some cases, a dealer will bring a vehicle to the home of a prospective customer and leave it for 24 to 48 hours, allowing them to use their potential purchase as part of their daily routine rather than on a minutes-long test drive on roads near the dealership. In other cases, sales reps from Lincoln dealers will bring the paperwork to the home of a new-car buyer rather than force the client to come into the showroom. The pilot project started in March and “is picking up steam,” Parker said.
Retail is shifting toward an online delivery model where customers never have to leave the comfort of their homes, and car buying may soon be no different.