Sick of subscriptions? Heated seats in cars the latest cost to test consumers' limits

BMW is charging car buyers a monthly fee for heated seats to work in British and South Korean markets, but not here in Canada. But experts say the trend for subscription products is growing. Are consumers ready for the idea that pay once, own forever becomes pay forever, own never?

BMW won't charge a monthly fee for the feature in Canada, though businesses love subscriptions

BMW dealers won't have to worry about customers needing to pay monthly for their heated seats. But the business practice of repeatedly charging small amounts for features that were traditionally a one-time purchase is not going anywhere, say marketing experts. (Sam Nar/CBC)

A nicely warmed leather seat in a luxury automobile is how many BMW owners imagine their driving experience on a cold winter road.

But if those drivers live in the United Kingdom or South Korea, they may have to pay monthly for the experience of heated buttocks — among other features.

The luxury car manufacturer has introduced monthly charges in those markets to activate heated seats in their vehicles, along with features such as traffic camera alerts or driving assistance.

While BMW is not bringing the practice to Canada or the United States for heated seats yet, it's sparked questions about whether the business model is changing for how consumers pay for goods that were traditionally one-time purchases.

Pay once, own forever becomes pay forever, own never

"Businesses love subscription-based services," said Yann Cornil, an assistant professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business.

A screenshot of BMW UK's website shows tan leather automobile seats along with potential charges of £15 to activate heated seats for one month.
BMW customers in South Korea and the United Kingdom can pay a monthly subscription to activate the already-installed heated seats in their vehicles, as pictured. (BMW UK)

The practice helps smooth out a company's revenues over time, he said. A company can expect a steady stream of more predictable income, rather than large bursts of money whenever a purchase is made.

"It's much easier to predict future revenue. It reduces volatility in revenues," he said.

Businesses and their investors value that predictability, according to Cornil, who specializes in marketing and behavioural science.

Another potential business boon is that consumers may not want to cancel the service once they've tried it out, guaranteeing a lifetime source of monthly revenue for a company. 

UBC's Yann Cornil said once people subscribe to things they used to get included with purchase, like heated seats, they are in for the long haul as it's 'much harder to adapt to a lower level of comfort by stopping the subscription.' (CBC)

Cornil describes this as part of what behavioural scientists call the "endowment effect," or the idea that once you feel like you've owned something — like, say, heated seats — it's difficult to lose access even if that means you keep paying for it.

"People quickly adapt to the increased level of comfort … I suspect it will become much harder to stop this subscription, much harder to adapt to a lower level of comfort by stopping the subscription," he said.

Not a new concept in the automotive industry

Floating the idea of charging monthly for features that are built into other vehicles is not a new concept for BMW.

In 2019, the company faced some criticism for charging a subscription fee for the Apple CarPlay feature in vehicles. It later dropped the charge.

Tesla has also launched subscription packages in some markets for features such as self-driving or automatic parking.

BMW does allow Canadian consumers to add new features after they've initially purchased through a software download, but said systems such as heated seats aren't a part of this offering.

"We do not have a subscription-based business model in Canada, but like the U.S., we give customers the possibility of adding new software-based functionality to their vehicle through software upload using hardware already in their car," said BMW Group Canada's Barb Pitblado in an emailed statement to CBC News.

A screenshot of BMW's Canadian subscription site shows text on a white background with an image of a car's dashboard console.
BMW offers Canadian consumers the ability to subscribe to offerings such as a concierge service or traffic data for a recurring fee. Heated seats are not up for grabs in Canada; they are still built into the car when you buy it. (BMW Canada/Facebook)

Pitblado also pointed out that heated seats and steering wheels are offered as standard in most Canadian models offered by the company.

Auto expert says customers may go elsewhere

According to automotive industry writer Lauren Fix, car shoppers may go elsewhere if subscribing to features that used to be permanent purchases take hold.

"This vehicle has heated seats, which you have to pay extra for, and the switch is already there? It makes people unhappy, uncomfortable," said Fix, who is the editor-in-chief of Car Coach Reports.

Fix said the knowledge that a feature like heated seats is physically present in a vehicle, but just doesn't work due to a financial choice, can be aggravating to customers and may drive away business.

"The idea is that you want repeat customers and if you start nickel-and-diming customers, they'll go elsewhere," she said.

Will subscriptions be like permanent purchases?

However, marketing experts say while the idea of subscribing for physical features and items may feel new and frustrating to consumers in some contexts — it's not going anywhere.

"It's a fundamentally different way of thinking about devices," said Joanne McNeish, an associate professor with the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto Metropolitan University.

McNeish's research focuses on how people respond to new technologies, and she pointed out consumers are, in some ways, already used to the concept of subscribing for full functionality.

This white BMW X5 luxury SUV, as a North American model, is likely to have heated seats. No subscription required. (The Associated Press)

"My phone doesn't work if I don't have the internet … I can still type some things. However, the full functionality isn't available if I don't pay for it or it's not working," said McNeish.

McNeish believes consumers have been primed over the last two decades to move away from traditional ownership and toward more of a rental model for many products, pointing out that leasing entire motor vehicles is, in itself, not uncommon.

"Owning physical things implies control in their use, how long we keep them, and what we do with them when we're done. This new model says you don't own things anymore, therefore you don't get to decide all of these things. But if you want access to them, you will have to pay for them."

Even though BMW is not charging monthly fees for heated seats in Canada at this point, should the business model become more popular, experts such as McNeish expect an initial backlash.

"Consumers will rail against it," she said, adding that right now people are used to receiving many products — like heated seats —  "for free" with their purchase.

"It's going to be rather difficult to stop getting those things."


Anis Heydari

Senior Reporter

Anis Heydari is a senior business reporter at CBC News. Prior to that, he was on the founding team of CBC Radio's "The Cost of Living" and has also reported for NPR's "The Indicator from Planet Money." He's lived and worked in Edmonton, Edinburgh, southwestern Ontario and Toronto, and is currently based in Calgary. Email him at

With files from Krystalle Ramlakhan

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