BEIJING -- China's auto industry has gone from 0 to 60 in its post-pandemic campaign drive, with manufacturers and dealers moving quick to woo back lockdown-weary consumers through campaigns as unusual as a makeup-promoting personality touting leases.
Social media celebrity Lipstick King urged millions of fans on a live-streamed shopping show to sign up for a lease deal for one of General Motors Co.'s Cadillac CT4 compact sedans.
"This color has the sense of 'I'm in charge' independence," he said, displaying a scale model of a chocolate-colored car.
The plug is just one part of a flury of promotional campaigns featuring steep discounts, cold calls and gimmicks, from an industry rocked by government restrictions on movement imposed in January to curb the spread of a virus which in China has infected 81,000 people and caused 3,300 deaths.
The economy shrank 21 percent in January-February with sales in the world's biggest vehicle market last month plunging 79 percent. Retail sales of passenger cars dropped 45 percent in the first three weeks of March, and the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers does not expect demand to normalize until the third quarter.
With authorities gradually easing restrictions, automakers and dealers have restarted the engines on promotional machinery and marketing to undo what consulting firm IHS Markit describes as an "unprecedented and almost instant stalling of demand."
U.S. electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc. has launched test-drive and delivery services with no staff contact, while Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. is delivering disinfected vehicles and dropping off keys with drones.
The EV unit of Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. is even testing a system to perfume the Aion LX SUV with the aroma of traditional Chinese medicine.
SAIC-GM-Wuling -- a joint venture between SAIC Motor Corp., General Motors and a local partner -- on Feb. 25 started offering up to 11,000 yuan off the purchase of Wuling and Baojun brand vehicles, until the total discounts given reach 1 billion yuan ($141.69 million). Buyers also receive medical masks.
Lured by the promotion, restaurateur Wang Zhiyuan, 37, visited a SGMW dealership in Beijing earlier this month and received a 2,000 yuan discount on a Wuling Hongguang commercial minivan.
Family sauna equipment supplier Mo Xiufeng, 40, was at the same dealership viewing the same vehicle to make a purchase he had been mulling since before the lockdown.
"I haven't been able to come in the meantime because, fearing the virus, I didn't want to leave my home," he said.
The dealership sold just 20 vehicles in February. It is targeting March sales of 100, versus an average of 500 before the virus outbreak.
Due to the nationwide campaign, SGMW has seen a quick recovery in volume. A spokeswoman said March registered at least five days of sales in excess of 5,000 vehicles, with one day reaching 6,000, far exceeding last year's daily average for the month. At the beginning of February, sales were around 200.
Still, industry trade groups have called for government help including lower sales taxes on small vehicles, support for sales in rural areas and looser emission rules. The China Automobile Dealers Association has lobbied for loans to dealerships and temporary liquidity support such as credit lines.
Local authorities in cities that rely heavily on vehicle manufacturing, such as Guangzhou in the south and Ningbo in the east, have also started to offer sales incentives.
Visits to showrooms by a Reuters reporter and telephone interviews with 50 dealerships across China indicate the campaigns are indeed bringing shoppers back.
A Beijing dealership for a joint venture between Dongfeng Motor Group Co. and Honda Motor Co., however, has a problem beyond showroom traffic that is likely to leave March sales in "single digits" versus the usual 100.
"The problem now is we don't have enough cars in inventory," the sales manager told Reuters.
Dongfeng Honda is based in the city of Wuhan where the virus was first reported at the end of last year, and where business activity has been restricted for two months. A Honda spokesman said production at the venture was gradually increasing.
"The manufacturer said new cars would not arrive until mid-April," the sales manager said, standing in a deserted showroom.