Cover Story

The brand sells itself in China 

Updated: 2011-06-17 11:13

By Matt Hodges (China Daily European Weekly)

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Luxury car sales in China hit a new record in May. But if my recent attempt to enquire about buying a luxury convertible in Shanghai is any barometer, this explosive growth is more down to the brand's reputation than its local sales force.

There are no two ways about it: the luxury convertible that I desired oozed sex appeal, panache, success and sophistication. Its six-cylinder engine promises to gets you from 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds, while its sleek chassis and twin exhaust made it a high-concept dream.

In other words, I should have been an easy sell. The brand had already won me over with its slick advertising even before I entered the store. So why was I ready to ditch my "dream" within 10 minutes?

Was it because of all the import tax I would have to pay, or the difficulty I would meet in trying to secure a car loan? Was it because China only imports certain models, or that the available palette of colors did not meet my needs?

No. The main reason came in the form of a local saleswoman, who was dressed to the hilt in Gucci and Prada and who had cute Pippi Longstocking pigtails. The problem was, she was more interested in these than in selling anyone a new car.

Her signature motifs included ignoring customers to answer personal phone calls, whipping out her compact to apply more lipstick, and constantly referring to me as laowai (foreigner). The concept of personalized service had not entered her mental lexicon. Everything I said triggered raised eyebrows, or the phrase laowai hen hao xiao (foreigners are really funny). My Chinese colleague was offered her name card. I was not.

I began to suspect that my Bob Marley T-shirt and jeans had put her off, but three middle-aged, suit-wearing Chinese men entered the store while I was there, and they also got the silent treatment. The other two salesmen were too busy surfing social networking sites to even acknowledge them.

When I asked the lady attending to me what my options were if I chose to penny pinch and keep costs to around 300,000 yuan (32,000 euros), she named the four-door model. The brand I wanted was too expensive for me, and I should forget about it, she said. The "you can't afford it" line is a classic sales tactic anywhere, but it works especially well in money-mad China, where wealth is a source of great pride.

When we moved on to the issue of bank loans, to my surprise she picked up the phone and called Shenzhen Development Bank. We were finally getting somewhere.

Foreigners can get bank loans to buy cars in China if they work in the country and show tax returns, according to the saleswoman. A down payment of 30 percent of the total purchasing cost is required. Getting a license plate costs about 55,000 yuan and takes 1-2 days, she says.

If I did not own a property in the city to use as collateral, I had to find a guarantor who did, one who had a steady job or who owned his own company. This seemed reasonable enough. What was strange was the lady's insistence that the whole procedure was tai mafan (too much trouble), and that she did not understand why foreigners would want to buy a car in China anyway.

I asked if I was the first laowai she had dealt with. She laughed. "No, no, no, hen duo, hen duo" (many, many), she said, mostly from big enterprises.

I wanted to ask her if, like most salespeople, her salary was commission-based, and how much money she made last month. But who knows, maybe Chinese people like to be left alone when they go car-shopping, so I just chalked this one down to experience.


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