VANCOUVER — Canada’s WestCoast metropolis, long a prime destination for Chinese immigrants, is attracting new wave of prosperous transplants who spend freely, but want exemplary service from dealers.
The latest immigrant wave is probably the most prosperous, adding a group that’s “likely to be conspicuous consumers,” according to one analyst. Most do not fit the stereotype of cash-rich entrepreneurs, but they and other Chinese Canadians constitute an important automotive market.
Meeting their needs requires more than patronizing tokenism. Dealers have to deliver on service and the quality of the deal, says Justin Gebara, general manager of Columbia Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep. The store is in suburban Richmond, where about half the 200,000 residents are of Chinese origin. Many arrived in the last two decades.
Yes, Columbia marks Chinese New Year, and Gebara ensures he has local Mandarin and Cantonese speakers on staff. But Chinese customers are looking for great service, honest dealing and the best price possible, just like any other buyer, he said.
“You’re looking for someone who’s courteous, very respectful, someone who’s willing to give them great service, make them feel like a million bucks whether they’ve got it or not,” said Gebara. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Experts say it pays to be knowledgeable about ethnic consumers’ buying habits. Chinese are among the largest of those potential markets, said Bernice Cheung, vice-president of cultural markets and financial services at Environics Research Group. Chinese immigrants have been coming to Vancouver for a century and a half, with census data showing almost 500,000 ethnic Chinese among the area’s 2.5 million residents
“The importance of Chinese consumers cannot be neglected by car manufacturers or dealers, as they represent a highly lucrative prospect for acquisition,” Cheung wrote in an email.
More recent arrivals from mainland China typically have different expectations from those who came from Hong Kong in the ‘90s or more deeply rooted Chinese Canadians, she said: “While there are cultural similarities, the fact is that recent immigrants are more likely to be conspicuous consumers than longer tenured immigrants.”
Purchasing goods such as luxury automobiles indicate social status and economic power, Cheung explained.
“With more tenured immigrants, the adoption to Canadian values of practicality [and] functionality are typically more prominent, hence though a luxury car still has appeal, it’s not as essential for a tenured Chinese,” she said.
For well-heeled immigrants, price might not drive the buying decision, added Chunhua Wu, assistant professor of marketing and behavioural science at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.
“For them, it’s more about the service levels instead of the price promotions or incentives,” he said in an interview.
Recent arrivals gravitate toward brands they knew in China and, said Cheung, luxury and brand reputation are important attributes. Foreign luxury vehicles carry high import duties in China, making them comparative bargains in Canada.
“Probably they pay half the price here,” Wu said. “So what they care about is how soon they can get it and what is the process, the service level when they shop around.”
Gebara said language is rarely a barrier at his dealership, but Wu said many recent investor class immigrants aren’t comfortable speaking English with sales people. Cheung added it’s useful to have staff who mirror the market’s demographic, including language, cultural background and shared experiences.
THE PERILS OF DECEPTION
The popularity of German luxury brands among wealthier arrivals to Vancouver also has a downside, Wu said. Strong demand coupled with lim ited availability might prompt sales people to lie so a customer won’t shop around.
“If they don’t have the inventory, they tell you that there’s nothing in Vancouver and you need to wait for two months, which turns out not to be true,” said Wu, himself a recent car shopper.
That kind of manipulation creates bad word-of-mouth, he said.
“People rely on personal relationships to make big purchases in China, said Wu. “When they emigrate to Canada, they try to find someone who is trustworthy.”
Cheung said immigrants also tend to be more tech-savvy than “mainstream” consumers using the web and mobile apps to stay in touch with people back home.
Many dealers use social media to reach out to potential customers, but Wu said public platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are not as popular among Chinese. They prefer WeChat, a Chinese developed messaging app that has nearly one billion users in the country and abroad. A sales person who wants to stay in touch with potential customers should notify them they have a WeChat account, he said.
“Chinese prefer close ties or more individualized relationships.” Wu said. “That’s why the WeChat channel becomes very important.”