Automakers are crafting strategies to keep existing customers -- and perhaps poach some new ones -- when the number of vehicle owners coming off lease shoots up next year.
The jump in off-lease customers is a byproduct of the credit freeze and leasing lull that began during the recession. People who leased vehicles after the market recovered in 2010 and beyond are returning to showrooms in growing numbers as three-year leases expire.
Auto executives are eager to fight for their share of the influx, which could provide a tail wind for continued U.S. sales growth in 2014 amid signs that the recovery is losing steam. An increase in U.S. sales next year would be the fifth in a row and only the second time that has happened since the 1930s.
"There is a tsunami of customers coming up," Jose Munoz, the newly appointed chairman of Nissan North America, said in an interview. The level of Nissan customers with leases ending next year is "coming back to pre-crisis mode, which is several times bigger" than the brand has had in recent years.
Leasing has roared back amid low interest rates, easy credit and improving residual values, which allows automakers to offer lower monthly payments while preserving profits. Through September, leasing accounted for 23 percent of U.S. new-car registrations, up from 13 percent for the whole of 2009, according to data from Polk.
That comeback has produced a lag effect of lease customers hitting showrooms in greater numbers. For example, General Motors, which all but stopped leasing vehicles in 2009 and much of 2010, says its volume of lease returnees began building this fall. GM expects lease maturities to reach 14,000 to 20,000 a month throughout 2014, after averaging just 5,000 for most of this year.
The surge of off-lease buyers creates a prime opportunity for automakers to lock in some of their most loyal customers because lessees are more likely to stick with their brands than customers who purchase their vehicles.
But automakers also must guard against customers defecting to rival brands, which see fertile ground for conquest sales through lease pull-ahead deals and cut-rate monthly payments.
And many automakers say they'll be better able to woo returning lease customers with rejuvenated vehicle lineups and showrooms compared with the dark days of four years ago, when sales fell to a three-decade low.
This year is on track to be the first since 2009 that U.S. auto sales have failed to grow at a double-digit rate. Job growth remains sluggish, and the housing market is rebounding slowly. Demand for new vehicles was up 8 percent through October.
Jim O'Sullivan, CEO of Mazda North American Operations, would love to get some of his rivals' expiring-lease customers into showrooms to kick the tires on a redesigned Mazda6 sedan, Mazda3 compact or CX-5 crossover.
"It provides an opportunity with folks who are coming off-lease [from another manufacturer] to consider the brand," O'Sullivan said. "If you've got a million or a million-and-a-half [customers ending leases] that provides an outflow opportunity and maybe an inflow for us."
GM fired an early salvo on Nov. 20, rolling out a national lease-conquest program that offers a $500 cash allowance to customers who are leasing non-GM vehicles. Most of the Chevrolet lineup and all GMC vehicles are eligible under the program, which runs through Jan. 2, according to a document that was sent to dealers.
GM spokesman Jim Cain declined to provide specifics about the incentives but said a number of competitors are offering similar deals to conquest lease customers.
Larry Dominique, president of ALG Inc., the lease-residual forecasting arm of TrueCar.com, says automakers should enjoy rising levels of off-lease customers until 2017. While brands with strong customer loyalty, such as BMW, will focus on retaining customers, conquest-hungry brands such as Volkswagen, Hyundai and Nissan will be more aggressive with incentives and lower payments, he said.