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365 Days Later: What Volvo’s Subscription Service Means for the Larger Industry

Despite the push from an eager industry, car subscription services haven’t proven an overwhelming success. The general consensus is that premium services, while intriguing concepts, are too expensive and complicated to maintain at scale. Book by Cadillac, which was recently suspended by General Motors, is emblematic of the public’s lackadaisical response to a system mired in logistical issues.

However, the concept itself isn’t dead just because one manufacturer decided it wasn’t worthwhile. Other premium nameplates still have their own services — Toyota plans to launch its own subscription-based pilot program in Japan soon, while Volvo Cars has enjoyed some success with Care by Volvo. Still, framing it as a trouble-free victory for the brand would be a mistake. Volvo’s subscription service has been as much a learning opportunity as it has been an overwhelming triumph.

“Growth is fun, but it can also complicate things,” Anders Gustafsson, CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, told Automotive News last week.

Launched one year ago on the company’s new XC40 crossover, Care by Volvo allows customers to subscribe to a service that bundles payments, insurance, and maintenance costs into a single payment between $650 and $850 per month — depending on trim. Thus far, the XC40 is the only vehicle tied to the service, but the company intends to add the S60 and possibly another model soon, which is important, as Care forces users into two-year agreements that allow subscribers to swap into new vehicle after 12 months.

Of course, the wait is likely to be longer than that for new customers. Things have been complicated. Care by Volvo was bashed early on for its inability to serve customers in a timely matter. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to have changed much in the last year. Within its first four months of operation, Volvo claimed to have sold the number of subscriptions it had anticipated over a full year of operation. Still behind, the automaker claims signing up for a subscription on the XC40 now puts you on a waitlist that extends into 2019.

In addition to wondering what type of person pays $850 per month to borrow a car they could have leased for hundreds less, we wonder how Volvo intends to handle trades once the S60 arrives. Presumably, they’ll be subject to the same issues as the XC40 and likely incur more delays and logistical problems.

Gustafsson said Care by Volvo claimed as much as 15 percent of the XC40s intended for dealerships. Volvo eventually instituted a 10 percent cap on the XC40 while the CEO travelled between dealerships to help convince them they each had a place in the automaker’s plan to create revenue streams beyond traditional car sales.

“It’s really the same concerns from everybody, and it’s just that they don’t feel secure,” Gustafsson said. “They’re afraid we’re going to take something away from them … I would say the biggest question mark around subscriptions is that consumers need to decide that. Our retailers are asking, ‘Please let us be involved, because we can help.’”

Volvo’s current plan involves having dealerships find the quickest way to get returned (used) vehicles back into the subscription lineup or prep models for resale. Meanwhile, the carmaker intends to refine the Care by Volvo app, providing a second-generation version to further minimize the need for customers to interact with the dealership.

The big takeaway is that these types of services can work for an automaker if the circumstances are right and set a precedent for a new business model. Volvo’s complete lack of choice between vehicles — supposedly the main appeal of these services (and hardest aspect for automakers to adapt to) — proves that a certain subset of customers are willing to pay more for something that basically just takes care of their insurance provider. This has to be of interest to industry bean counters.

a version of this article first appeared on thetruthaboutcars.com

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