Sales of new vehicles in the $100,000 range are skidding, for reasons "more psychological than practical," said Susan Jacobs, president of auto consultant Jacobs & Associates. She said wealthy Americans are losing "that splurge mentality" in today's souring economic climate and predicted the top of the market will remain weak for some time.
Not a time to be conspicuous
And then, of course, there's been backlash in mainstream America over Wall Street "fat cats" who have contributed to the financial meltdown that's prompting a $700 billion bailout by the U.S. government.
Bentley Motors' U.S. sales slipped by "25-odd percent" this year, due to a combination of market conditions and new-product cadence, a spokesman for the automaker said. Bentley's research and dealer comments revealed people are now questioning whether it's socially acceptable to buy big-ticket items such as a high-end car or yacht, he added.
Consumers with a net worth of between $3 million and $5 million "are second-guessing their high-end purchases because of the economy," he said. So the Volkswagen AG-owned brand, which does a limited amount of national U.S. newspaper advertising via Fuse Communications, Birmingham, Mich., has been tweaking its event marketing to focus on more affluent prospects -- Americans with a net worth of some $25 million or more.
Bentley sold 2,001 new cars in the U.S. in the first eight months of 2008, or 808 fewer units than in the same 2007 period, according to Automotive News. Aston Martin and Porsche each saw their U.S. sales drop by more than 15% through August vs. a year ago, while Mercedes-Benz USA's Maybach arm slid by almost 8% in the same period, Automotive News figures show. Sales of Ferrari-branded cars dipped to 1,080 from 1,173 in the eight months.
The anomaly was Rolls-Royce: BMW's Rolls-Royce brand sold 296 cars through August, up 5% from the 281 it sold domestically a year ago.
Perception is a problem
Bob Austin, founder of consultant Auto Futures Group and an industry veteran, warned that even though the target market's own income may not be threatened, potential buyers of ultra-luxury automobiles are concerned about how they might be perceived: "Will they be seen as evil Wall Street tycoons or successful business people?" The former communications general manager for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in North America advised marketers to profile their owners as good guys who are creating jobs and making other noteworthy social contributions.
Maserati North America President-CEO Marti Eulberg said she hasn't started to feel or see any evidence of potential negative images of her buyers from Main Street America. The Fiat Group-owned brand has seen its U.S. sales climb to 1,748 cars in the first eight months of the year vs. 1,736 in the same year-ago period, according to Automotive News. But sales of Maserati's flagship sedan, the Quattroporte, are off by more than 40%, Ms. Jacobs said.
Ms. Eulberg said sales have shifted from the aging sedan, which got a significant facelift for the 2009 model, to the GranTurismo sports car (which starts at $113,750 and went on sale 11 months ago).
Maserati in 2002 returned to the U.S. market, which was the automaker's biggest last year, accounting for 2,650 of the 7,353 cars delivered globally in 2007. Another possible reason for Maserati's growth is the carmaker started to do more vehicle leasing last year after launching its captive finance arm, Maserati Finance Co.
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Maserati does all its advertising in-house, including direct mail and 650,000 monthly e-mails to owners, prospects and hand raisers. The average buyer has an annual household income of $500,000.
"It used to be believed that the super-affluent buy what they want, when they want," Ms. Jacobs said. But the major declines in real estate values, the stock market and other economic indicators "does have an impact at the upper end."