July 2020 SAAR

SAAR Increased to 14.5 Million in July, and Declines in Public Transportation and Ride-Sharing Usage Could be Creating Opportunities for Dealerships


SAAR has continued its upward trend coming in at 14.5 million, an encouraging 11% increase from June. However, sales continue to trail pre-COVID numbers with July 2020 14% below the same time last year.

With demand picking up as customers can return to brick-and-mortar locations, dealerships aren’t feeling the need to offer as strong of incentives as they did at the start of the pandemic. According to JD Power, preliminary estimates put incentive spending for the month at $4,236 per unit, down from June 2020, but up by $166 compared to July 2019.

As we mentioned in our previous SAAR post, inventory problems continue to be a difficult hurdle for dealerships to contend with as demand returns. JD Power reported that 41% of all vehicles sold in July spent fewer than 20 days on dealer’s lots, up from 35% a year ago.

2020 is also proving to be an interesting year for new and used vehicles, as thin margins on cheap, new vehicles have manufacturers abandoning the investment. According to data from KBB, vehicles between $20K and $30K have declined from 44% of the market share in 2015 to 22% of the market share in 2020. Cars under $20,000 make up only 1.3% of new car sales so far this year. With the average price paid for a new vehicle around $39,000, this is way above many buyers’ budgets. As a result, entry-level buyers have been looking to the used car market instead. With the used car market getting bumps from new technologies, this has proven to be a viable and cost efficient option for new buyers.

Pandemic Silver Linings for Auto Dealerships

While the reopening of the country is bringing people back to dealerships, many places still aren’t being frequented like they had been in the past. Included in this list are bars, concert halls, and public transportation means. With fewer events going on, demand for ride shares has decreased significantly according to the Q2 earnings calls (stay tuned for next week’s blog post for a full rundown on those calls).

The empty subways and buses should be on the radar of dealerships and could prove to be an ultimate silver lining among all of the negatives that the Covid-19 pandemic has created for auto sales. With social distancing difficult to achieve in a closed space environment like public transportation, there seems to have been a shift in consumer sentiment in favor of car ownership.

The empty subways and buses should be on the radar of dealerships and could prove to be a ultimate silver lining to the struggles caused by the pandemic.

A survey released in mid-July from CarGurus tracked customers’ views around buying a vehicle, and the results were striking! 39% of people planning to buy cars are looking to avoid ride-sharing, and 44% of them say they want to decrease or stop public transit use. Furthermore, as people start returning to the office, this number could increase, with 44% of people who take public transit to work citing that this is their top concern in returning to the office.

As more data has been released noting the potential risks of using public transportation, the data surrounding people’s comfort level with public transport in the current climate is understandable.  Even the government has become somewhat of a proponent of car ownership over public transportation during this time, as the CDC has encouraged companies to offer incentives for employees to use their own cars to ride to work, rather than public transportation or ride sharing.

The Current State of Public Transportation and Ridesharing

When you look at the data behind public transportation usage since the pandemic began, it paints a clear picture of consumer preference during this time. Public transit ridership is measured by “unlinked passenger trips” with trips defined as whenever a person boards a transit vehicle, including transfers.

Despite local governments pouring billions into public transit infrastructure, public transit ridership has been declining since at least 2014, with unlinked passenger trips falling 7.5%. The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated this decline significantly, with public transit unlinked trips dropping 85% from January to April at its lowest levels in more than a century. While this decline in usage could be attributed to overall declines in travel from stay at home orders, the graph below tells a different story. Vehicle miles did experience a decline as well, but it was strikingly smaller than that of public transit at 42%.

Ridesharing services are facing a similar problem, as consumers are feeling uncomfortable sharing an enclosed space with a stranger.

Uber has reported gross bookings on rides being down 75% in Q2. While Lyft declined to comment to the Washington Post on the impact of the pandemic on its business, the company has previously said its April ridership was down 75% in Q2.

Recovery in this space as the country reopens has varied widely by city and state depending on which are reopening, recovering, or reimposing restrictions. For example, ridership recovery has been prominent in cities like New York that have recently been recovering after facing the brunt of Covid cases earlier this year. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, however, it has been depressed as California continues to struggle with its caseload. California’s gig worker legislation also poses an existential threat, particularly for Lyft where it derived 16% of its business.

Manufacturers are encouraged by the changing sentiment surrounding car purchases, with Scott Keogh, Volkswagen’s U.S CEO noting that “We definitely do see a return to what I’ll call personal transportation and trust” and predicts a shift in consumer mindset to: “I know where this car has been; I know it’s mine.”

What Increased Private Car Ownership Might Mean for the Environment

With many cities having heavily invested in public transportation infrastructure, this Covid-induced fear of public transportation has many city officials nervous. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this past week issued statements against purchasing a car during the pandemic, as he told reporters “My advice to New Yorkers is do not buy a car. Cars are the past, the future is going to be mass transit – biking, walking – and there’s so many options right now and there’ll be more and more as we go forward.”

The new guidelines by the CDC encouraging private car usage have raised concerns about what could be unbearable congestion and a surge of carbon emissions.

While currently it may be safer to purchase a car to avoid unnecessary encounters with other individuals on public transit, ultimately this pandemic has an expiration date. More notable are worries that all of the efforts made to dissuade car usage for the sake of the environment could be unraveled through the emphasis on private car ownership.

The new guidelines by the CDC encouraging private car usage have raised concerns about what could be unbearable congestion and a surge of carbon emissions if people turn to cars to avoid exposing themselves to the virus. University of British Columbia urban planning and public health professor Lawrence Frank notes that “promoting private vehicle use as a public health strategy is like prescribing sugar to reduce tooth decay.”

However, both optimism from auto dealers on the prospect of new sales and concerns from public transportation advocates may be premature. With a vaccine predicted in 2021, consumer sentiments toward public transportation could easily revert back. Rebecca Lindland, an auto industry analyst, shares this viewpoint having seen previous trends come and go. For example, in 2008 when people started buying small fuel-efficient cars, she notes that “That only lasted two to three months, and then people went back to buying a vehicle that suited their wants and needs.” If people feel safer riding public transit with the development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and parking and traffic once again become headaches, consumer preferences could shift off private car ownership.

Looking Forward

While pandemic-related car sales stemming from public transportation avoidance may not be long-term, in the short run it could help boost dealership sales while they are trying to recover.

However, many Americans are still hesitant to purchase a vehicle. This is despite a third of consumers saying they value having their own car more now than they did before Covid, and 93% were using cars more in the era of social distancing.

The NADA expects new-vehicle retail sales to continue to recover for the rest of the year, while fleet sales will struggle.

This hesitation stems not from opinions on transportation, but rather on the state of the economy. As unemployment remains high and there are uncertainties surrounding future government stimulus, consumers could be waiting for a more stable environment to make large purchases such as vehicles.

Nonetheless, the National Auto Dealer Association expects new-vehicle retail sales to continue to recover for the rest of the year, while fleet sales will struggle.  Inventory constraints may continue to plague the industry, but barring more production shutdowns, supply should ultimately be able to reach demand levels by end of the summer further supporting SAAR’s upward trajectory.