Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beware the light at the end of the tunnel

My youngest son, Marcel, though he won’t have his driver’s license until the end of the year, recently bought his first car, a 1995 900SE 2.0T from a former neighbor. Last Sunday, we took advantage of the glorious weather to return to Ipswich to go to the beach (where Marcel works) and afterword we stopped in the former neighborhood to see some friends. I had heard that the couple that sold the car to Marcel wanted something more fuel efficient, so I was curious to see what was in their driveway. Indeed, except for some repairs it needed, I was sure the couple hated to part with the car. I knew they liked it, and it was the first car they had purchased together.

High Street in Ipswich often looked like it might have the densest concentration of Saabs anywhere outside Trollhattan, even if one discounted the several Saabs parked in front of our former home. Sadly, that has changed over the years. The new car which replaced the 1995 900 was a surprise to me—I was guessing Prius. It was instead a Golf TDI. Not a bad choice. Further up the street, another neighbor who commutes to the Berkshires had likewise traded his NG 900 for a Jetta TDI. Hmmm…..a pattern, perhaps?

While at the beach, we encountered a friend with whom we spent some time. Her former husband had been a customer here, and he had logged, last I heard from him last year, about 150,000 miles on his 2005 9-3. He struck me as the perfect demographic for Saab: educated, active (runner, cyclist, hiker…) and well heeled. Our friend informed us that he had traded his Saab for a Lexus? Really? He seems way to hip to be driving a Lexus.

Through these adventurous times for Saab, there has to be great concern about where their customers are going, and someone smarter than me needs to figure out why Saab owners become Lexus or VW buyers. Certainly, the 9-4x will bring us some fresh customers, which in turn could help sales in the long run of our other models. However, given the passion that many Saab owners feel, or felt, if they are former owners, Saab needs to zero in on why the defections occur. In the case of the friend who left for a Lexus, I can say that his car was virtually trouble free. Outside of warranty, there was almost nothing required beyond brakes, tires, bulbs and maintenance. Plus, I noted when I took his car in for service that even with an automatic transmission that he averaged, per his SID, 32 mpg. What’s not to like?

In the case of the defections to the VW’s, it is clear to me that Saab simply did not have an offering that satisfied the High Streeters desire to achieve greater fuel efficiency. I know all the rational arguments against importing the TTDI engine. However, who is to say that if Saab didn’t make that the cornerstone of the brand in the US that Saab might not be surging in sales right now, both with former and conquest customers? It would be a risky gambit, but shouldn’t that be one of the beauties of being a flyweight company, that you can make bold moves?

As much as Saab needs to know where they are losing their customers, the conundrum they face is that in light of the difficult business climate, they can barely afford to manage daily logistics, and it is likely not in the budget to hire analysts and a cadre or researchers to query consumers, mine data and formulate a strategy. It’s the old chicken-egg conundrum. Without that research, perhaps they can’t sell the cars they need to; without selling more cars and making some money, Saab won’t have the money to do any research. Yet, if Saab doesn’t put its ear to the rail and listen, how can it gauge that light at the end of the tunnel?

1 comment:

aerokev said...

I drive a '06 9-3 Aero and have to admit the other car in the family is a Jetta TDI. We spent a lot of time last year shopping for a set of wheels when we were expecting our baby.
Whilst I love my Saab and is loyal to the brand, even the base model was way out of the price range I could realistically afford. At a basic level everything on the 9-3 Linear would have met our needs, but the price was too high. Added to that woe was the uncertainty around the brand itself at the time. Here's to hoping that the next time we get to change cars, I get to replace the VW with a Saab,