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Automobile

Mercedes tells U.S. dealers that products، trims will be reduced

Monday 20/May/2019 - 11:03 AM
Sada El Balad
edited by: Basant Ahmed
Hoping to take some of the complexity out of a product portfolio that has proliferated in nameplates، model variants، trim packages and engine options over the last two decades، Mercedes-Benz told dealers this month that it will jettison some of its U.S. offerings in the coming year، Automotive News reported.

The brand's nameplates in the U.S. have nearly doubled to 15 since 2000. Factor in engine variants and body styles، and the luxury automaker sells nearly 90 models stateside.

Mercedes-Benz declined to comment on the plan that it laid out to retailers May 8 at a national meeting in Las Vegas.

"We are going to see models go away within the next 12 months،" said one dealer who attended the closed-door meeting and asked not to be identified. "Within the next 90 days، we might see some of those announcements."

Mercedes also will prune the number of options and equipment packages it offers، according to people who heard the presentation، eliminating poor-selling ones while making the most popular options standard equipment on certain models or tacking them onto existing feature packages.

The Mercedes dealer compared the brand's product range to the voluminous menu at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant.

"It's 14 pages، and there's a hundred choices on each of the 14 pages،" he said. "I need a Ph.D. to figure out what the hell I want. I just want a chicken Caesar salad."
Arms race
Product portfolio inflation isn't limited to Mercedes. Rival BMW more than doubled its U.S. offerings to 17 nameplates since 2000، while Audi nearly tripled its portfolio to 14 nameplates.

The German premium brands have been in a "fragmentation arms race" over the last several years، almost to the point of confusing the consumer، said Jeff Schuster، president of global forecasting at LMC Automotive.
"It has gotten to the point of being just too much to manage customer model confusion، vehicle logistics and manufacturing،" Schuster said. "Each of these models require marketing support، education at the dealer level، even service and parts inventory."

For dealers، more models has meant higher inventory levels، which increase floorplan balances، resulting in increased dealership interest expense.

Complications aside، Mercedes' strategy of targeting niches has allowed it to cast a wider net for customers. That approach has paid off — Mercedes has been the U.S. luxury sales champion for three consecutive years.

But even now، Mercedes' U.S. model expansion is continuing. This year will see the introduction of two new-to-the-U.S. nameplates. In March، Mercedes began selling the A-class compact sedan، its least expensive nameplate. The GLB crossover is expected to arrive at stores by Christmas، dealers were told at the meeting.

"We need to take a close look at what segments، what niches، are big enough for us that they make sense for us to compete in them،" Dietmar Exler told Automotive News last month before news of his resignation as Mercedes-Benz USA CEO last week. "We will not go into a niche if it makes economically no sense."

Ola Källenius، who takes over as Daimler CEO on Wednesday، May 22، acknowledged the portfolio could use a trim.

"We have a little bit more than 40 models now،" Källenius said at a media roundtable on the sidelines of the Shanghai auto show in April، referring to all body styles. He said he anticipates consolidation of a "model or two" in the future.

Chopping block contenders
Mercedes has not yet told dealers which models might be on the chopping block. But there are some likely contenders.

In February، the automaker said it will discontinue the SLC Roadster next year، citing a challenging market for compact two-seaters in an increasingly SUV-oriented market. U.S. sales of the SLC dropped to 1،993 last year and have fallen steadily since topping 10،000 a year in the early 2000s.
The low-volume S-class convertible and coupe models are also at risk of being eliminated in the U.S. Combined sales of the S-class body variants totaled 2،200 last year، according to LMC Automotive.
Lower down the price stack، the C-class coupe and convertible also could disappear. U.S. sales of the C-class coupe tumbled 25 percent and the convertible 31 percent in the last year، according to LMC.
Niche car models are being squeezed out of the marketplace by higher-volume، higher-profit light trucks.

The GLE and GLC coupe crossovers target the same buyers who، a generation ago، would have purchased an E-class or C-class coupe or convertible.

"Coupes and convertibles in the sedan segment are niches of niches،" said Sam Fiorani، vice president with AutoForecast Solutions. "Additional versions of passenger car models such as the S-class coupe are less likely to be replaced after the current generation ends."

Sharing opportunities
Automakers often rely on consumer studies to identify white spaces — segments of the market that are not being addressed — to determine what products to bring to market.

But in the last decade، the German luxury brands have taken more of a tit-for-tat approach to product development، launching vehicles to match competitor moves، noted Ed Kim، analyst with AutoPacific.
If BMW is going to have a midsize crossover coupe، then، by golly، Mercedes and Audi are going to do it، too،" Kim said.

Technology advancements have fueled the arms race. Vehicle platforms today are flexible، allowing automakers to add new models at an incremental cost.

"You can make money on lower volume by sharing a vehicle platform with a more mainstream model by putting a different top hat on it،" Schuster said. "However، we have hit a point of saturation."

By sharing platforms، Mercedes can deliver more consumer choice in a cost-effective way، Källenius said.

"We have had almost an unbroken trend over 20 years، where we have gone for more variants،" he said. "The key to doing that successfully is intelligent architectures."

Robust consumer demand over the last decade provided automakers the runway to chase every conceivable niche. But things are different now as the industry stares into the maw of a sales contraction.

While development costs can be shared، dividing marketing budgets among all the models is harder.

"With industry volumes dropping، automakers have to think about how to use their marketing resources to the best benefit،" Kim said. "Having too many models makes that a bigger challenge."

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