Sales pace slowing as dealerships run dry

U.S. light-vehicle sales slowed in June from the booming pace of April and May, as shortages of many popular vehicles kept consumers on the sidelines, forecasters said. Second-quarter sales are still expected to reach the highest level since at least 2018, but analysts anticipate declining volume in the months ahead.

Cox Automotive expects total sales of 4.5 million in the second quarter, up 1.3 percent from 2019 and up 53 percent from the same period of 2020, in the early months of the pandemic.

For June, Cox estimates that the seasonally adjusted, annualized light-vehicle selling rate fell to 16.4 million from 17 million in May and more than 18 million in April. LMC Automotive and J.D. Power project a SAAR of 15.8 million.

Most automakers plan to report June and second-quarter sales Thursday.

“It is unlikely the industry can maintain the sales pace any longer because inventory is getting extremely tight. If shoppers can’t find the product they want, a sale can’t be made,” said Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist at Cox. “A green spring is going to be followed by a summer drought.”

Cox forecasts full-year volume of 16.5 million, up from 14.5 million in 2020 but short of the 17 million vehicles sold in 2019.

Sales for the first half of the year are expected to be flat with the first half of 2019, but the global microchip shortage that has disrupted production at many assembly plants is expected to keep 2021 below the pace of 2019 in the second half, Chesbrough said.

Chip-related assembly line shutdowns and slowdowns have cut production by about 4.6 million vehicles globally, according to AutoForecast Solutions, which projects the crisis to result in a total loss of 5.8 million vehicles.

“The market could be stronger if not for the lack of available supply,” Chesbrough said. “Concern about the supply situation really cannot be overstated, as we are in untested territory for the market.”

Second-quarter sales were off to an exceptionally strong start in April as COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’ executive director of insights.

“Unfortunately, the chipset and inventory shortages really came to a head and outstripped supply in June,” she said. “This isn’t a problem that’s going away anytime soon, but the silver lining for automakers and dealers in the meantime is that consumer demand continues to run high and shoppers are clearly willing to pay inflated prices for the vehicles that they want.”

Today, dealers have 1.3 million fewer vehicles on their lots than in the middle of 2020 and more than 2 million fewer than in mid-2019, according to Cox. Average days’ supply has plummeted more than 60 percent from January through May. The impact varies by brand. Chevrolet, for example, had less than 40 percent of the total it started with in January, while Ram still had 80 percent.

The lack of inventory pushed the industry’s average new-vehicle transation price to a record $40,206 in June, according to J.D. Power. That’s nearly $1,700 more than the previous record set only a month ago. Meanwhile, average incentive spending per unit in June fell an estimated 43 percent from a year ago to $2,492.

But many would-be shoppers are simply sitting things out until availability improves.

“The effect of fewer vehicles in inventory at dealerships is finally starting to have a material effect on aggregate industry sales volumes, as eager buyers struggle to find their desired new vehicle,” said Thomas King, president of the data and analytics division at J.D. Power.

June fleet sales are expected to fall 40 percent from 2019, even though demand from fleet buyers is on the rebound, King said. On a retail basis, LMC and J.D. Power project that the annualized sales pace fell to 13.6 million in June, which would be down from 15 million in May and even with June 2019.

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