From supporting small businesses to sourcing food from regional producers, Americans have embraced a local-first mentality.
Cultural trends like the farm-to-table movement, craft brewery proliferation and commercial revitalization efforts in cities across the Southeast suggest a healthy desire to support our own communities. We patronize local restaurants and boutiques above chains and retailers. We like to know who grows our produce. We want to see the people handling our business face-to-face.
That’s fine when you’re looking for a mom-and-pop general store or coffee shop, but does the local-first mentality carry over to larger purchases like automobiles? While selling points like safety and affordability still ultimately steer many buyers’ decisions, some auto dealers have noticed a preference for vehicles made in state.
“Some people do look for a car made by their family and friends, ” says Randy Powell, general manager of Mercedes-Benz of Birmingham. The dealership is less than 40 miles from the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International manufacturing plant in Vance, Alabama. “We see people who live nearby and work in Vance. They of course have an employee discount, and I think they value the investment the company has made in their community.”
Mercedes-Benz U.S. International’s employee lease and purchase programs allow full-time, regular plant employees the opportunity to drive their own Mercedes-Benz at special rates and discounts. Plant employees can pick up their vehicle at the Birmingham dealership or Leigh Automotive in Tuscaloosa.
Powell believes that Mercedes-Benz’s Alabama-made status attracts more than plant employees and their supportive families, however. He has seen a valuable brand-loyalty develop as the company has become ever more established in the state. “I’ve worked in Florida and Alabama, ” he says. “When I moved here as an operating partner, I was impressed by the way people had embraced Mercedes-Benz.”
Powell attributes this loyalty to the company’s economic contributions since beginning production in Alabama in 1997. “I think that people here feel that Mercedes-Benz has helped invigorate the state, ” he says. “Their plant was one of the first major international producers in Alabama. Once they arrived, suppliers and supporting business followed. With the infrastructure developed, other companies could bring in their own plants, opening more and more jobs around the state.”
Beyond drawing other industry players into the state, Mercedes-Benz has established serious recognition through charity events and community engagement. “The relationship between Mercedes-Benz and the surrounding state is very healthy, ” says Powell. “They really embrace the area. Events like the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham let them give back.” The annual marathon and half-marathon benefit charities like the Bell Center. The 2017 marathon is slated for February 10-12.
The MBUSI plant produces nearly all of Mercedes-Benz’s SUVs, including the GLS and GLE, the C-Class and GLE-Coupe. While the plant’s entire output touts luxury and performance, local buyers demonstrate a particular interest in SUVs.
“The vehicles we sell appeal to a large cross section, ” says Powell. “The Southeast is an SUV market. We sell out of them in Birmingham.”
In Georgia, Kia has produced vehicles at the Kia Motors Manufacturing facility in West Pont since 2009. Just over an hour drive away from the production facility, Sons Kia in McDonough has seen a similar interest develop.
“Some of the local customers do like to buy local and do like to support the local economy, ” says general manager Rafael Sanchez. “Plenty of people care where their car comes from.”
Kia offers special lease discounts for plant employees, as well as members of the military and their immediate family. “A lot of the plant employees live in the surrounding towns and commute to West Point, ” says Sanchez. “So by the workers being local and receiving great Kia employee discounts, it makes sense to work and buy local.”
Since opening in 2015, Sons has carried nearly every model Kia produces, excluding the Electric Soul. Sanchez has found that the manufactured-in-state models benefit from their local origins. “The Kia Sorento and the Kia Optima are built in West Point, Georgia. It does make a good impression that these two models are made right here, ” he says. “And we can proudly advertise ‘built in the USA.’ These are two of the hottest selling models.”
These vehicles have garnered some prestigious ratings and acclaim since rolling off the line at West Point. “Kia is making significant strides in national and global accolades, i.e. J.D. Power and Associates accolades for the Kia model line, ” says Sanchez.
While buyers do care where their car comes from, they necessarily value how it was made. “Customers are also looking for the latest technology and safety, ” says Sanchez. Affordability and financing factors remain a chief selling point. Kia’s 10-year, 100, 000-mile warranty has proved appealing. “It gives customers a great peace of mind that Kia will back their vehicles for that long.”
Quality, safety and pricing still make up the bottom line. Though for many, knowing your neighbors had a hand in the making of your vehicle is more than a bonus. For those with friends and family working at manufacturing facilities around the U.S., there’s immeasurable value in supporting local economies.
TEXT By THOMAS M. LITTLE // Photo by CARY NORTON