It’s hard to pick up a newspaper or a magazine or visit an automotive web site and not see media coverage about fuel-efficient vehicles. Economy cars, hybrids and electric vehicles represent an important part of future vehicle design, and rightfully so. Improving gas mileage and reducing dependence on foreign oil are worthy goals.
However, an abundance of media coverage about these vehicles might be leading to a skewed view of consumer demand in these categories. For automotive retailers, it is important to understand true consumer demand for economy cars, electric vehicles, hybrids, pickup trucks and SUVs and to floorplan accordingly.
To better understand consumer demand in these categories, Experian Automotive examined the fluctuations in market share for economy cars and pickup trucks relative to fluctuations in gas prices. As one would expect, a sudden spike in fuel prices tends to drive up demand for economy cars and lower demand for pickup trucks. However, even when gas prices retreat by only a few cents per gallon, demand for economy cars drops sharply and pickup trucks see a sudden burst in market share.
In Q1 2008, gas cost an average of $3.11 per gallon. The small car/economy market share was approximately 11.2%, while full-size pickup truck share was 11.6%. When gas prices soared to $3.76 per gallon in Q2 2008, small car/economy market share jumped to 15.2%. At the same time, full-size pickup truck share plummeted to 9.3%.
As soon as the rate of acceleration in gas prices eased, however, pickup trucks soared back and economy cars dropped off quickly. With gas at $3.85 a gallon in Q3 2008, full-size pickup truck market share had jumped up to 12.6%, while small car/economy market share slid back to 11.6%.
In the gas price spike of 2011, a gallon of gas shot up from nearly $3.22 per gallon in Q1 2011 to $3.79 in Q2 2011. During this steep run-up, the small car/economy segment and full-size pickup truck segment market share were relatively flat. Small car/economy went from 12.3% to 12.6%, while full-size pickup truck share fell from 10% to 9.8%.
As soon as gas prices receded to $3.64 per gallon in Q3 2011, pickup trucks shot back up to 11.6%, while economy cars dropped to 10.5%. So, despite fuel prices still being 42 cents per gallon higher than just two quarters earlier, demand for economy cars and full-size pickup trucks was relatively unchanged.
Unchanged demand wasn’t limited to full-size pickup trucks, either. In Q4 2011, with fuel prices at $3.47 per gallon, the SUV/large segment was at 2.5% — the same market share as when fuel prices were $3.11 in Q1 2008.
It appears that consumers’ tolerance for gas prices is not a fixed number, but rather an elastic number that stretches as people get used to paying higher prices. Anytime there is a significant spike in gas prices, consumers hit the panic button and make a run on economy cars. As soon as this spike begins to recede, consumers fall back into more traditional buying patterns.
What are the implications for automotive retailers? First, don’t believe every headline you read. Journalists are always looking for stories that are unique and interesting, and the sudden run-up in economy car demand is a phenomenon that certainly fit this description. Of course, economy cars represent an important segment as automakers work to reach future fuel economy standards. However, a high share of headlines does not necessarily equate to long-term shifts in consumer demand. Full-size pickup trucks have showed remarkable staying power, even as gas inches higher over time.
Second, beware of the sudden spike in demand. The initial run on high-mileage economy cars is often a knee-jerk reaction to a sudden spike in fuel prices. Rationality quickly returns to the market, and consumers return to more traditional buying patterns — even after just a slight drop in fuel prices.
The bottom line for dealers is to always monitor the pulse of consumer demand. This is best achieved by a rational review of sales registration data and an understanding of the unique sales patterns and demographics of their local market. Reliance on a gut feeling or media reports can lead dealers to a lot full of high-mileage vehicles that simply aren’t what their customers want.