Fleet Sales and Push Marketing

In April I wrote a column on the auto industry’s continuation of “push marketing,” despite assertions from the industry acknowledging the ills created by the practice. I wrote the column in the context of Toyota’s public relations and sales challenges. In response to a severe sales downturn, in the wake of the safety recalls and associated adverse publicity, Toyota bought back market share with huge incentives. This precipitated a similar effort by Toyota’s competitors in an effort to keep pace. This effort included the recently bankrupt GM and Chrysler, who had specifically disavowed “puh marketing” as a part of restructuring. The incentives included rebates, subvented financing, dealer “trunk money,” and optimistic lease subventions. In the case of Chrysler there have also been additional payments to consumers who use leasing or residual based financing through credit unions and other independent lenders.

Along the same lines, I am reading a new book, written by ex dealer Mark Ragsdale, entitled “Car Wreck, How You Got Rear-Ended, Run Over & Crushed by the U.S. Auto Industry.” In the book Ragsdale rails against “push marketing” practices employed by OEMs to artificially boost sales. He details how “push marketing” has contributed to the issue of “negative equity” in consumer trade ins and how this has led to increasingly longer term financing, rebates, diminished resale value, and the vicious circle that has rendered a huge percentage of consumers “un-financeable,” even those who are employed.

“Push marketing” strategies also include aggressive fleet sales. Noted automotive journalist, Jim Henry, recently provided input on the most recent June sales figures by noting that “fleet sales for the month were up 59% over the same period last year to just over 200,000 units." To be fair, last year at this time Chrysler and GM were in the throes of their bankruptcies. The Asset Backed Securities market, which had provided financing for most fleet and rental units, was barely functioning. This year the huge increase in fleet volume has been largely due to the replenishment of daily rental fleets due to an increased availability of funding and pent up demand. As I rent vehicles these days, I am no longer provided a beat up 40,000 mile “beater.” While this rental replenishment is a good thing, and indicative of renewed health in the ABS market, it should not be construed as evidence of a real retail resurgence.

There is an underlying weakness in retail demand in the automotive market at a time when real good news is desperately needed. The retail SAAR for June came in at only 8.6 million units, according to J. D. Power. This is down from May 2010. While fleet sales are much more profitable than before for the D3 due to the recent restructurings, it is retail demand that the economy and the auto industry desperately needs. GM and Chrysler are positioning for initial public stock offerings, GM as soon as the first week of July. Used car values are at historical highs, which should somewhat alleviate consumers’ negative equity positions in their trade ins. But the average trade in is a much higher mileage vehicle these days due to consumers, fleets, and rental companies having had to hold on to vehicles longer. The OEMs are able to break even or make money on lower retail sales even while paying huge incentives. The Detroit 3 no longer are required to pay UAW members to stay home and watch Oprah in the case of a plant shutdown. But consumer confidence is still weak and unemployment high. The European financial problems have shaken investors, which has been reflected by the recent drop in the Dow Jones average. This has rubbed off on consumers. Yes, the country's economic recovery is proceeding at a slower pace than expected.

As long as financing for fleet and rental sales is available we might expect to see an even higher sales rate of these subsidized sales. Under “normal” circumstances we might be complaining about how these fleet and rental sales contribute to the rapid depreciation of like model pre-owned vehicles recently purchased by consumers, contributing to their negative equity situation. But in today’s environment, aggressive short term lease subventions and aggressive daily rental recycling just may be the ticket to bolster the industry until other fundamentals have time to fall into place. In addition, the current and future pre-owned market needs the availability of additional pre-owned inventory. As always, it’s a question of balance. Will the industry know when to hit the brake pedal on fleet and rental sales?

Wards July 2010