Car Dealers Play COVID-19 Inventory Roulette

A dealer friend from North Carolina told me, “Dealers are optimists by nature. We always find a way to figure it out.”

4 Min Read
roulette table
If I were placing my bet at the new-vehicle inventory roulette wheel, I’d be betting with the optimists on blackGetty Images

There’s an interesting game of roulette being played in the new-car business right now, with about half of the dealers betting on red and the other half on black. 

The wagered is whether dealers should continue taking additional new-vehicle inventory into stock.

Many dealers have understandably been unnerved by this pandemic and have voluntarily placed themselves on finance hold to halt any additional vehicles from being delivered.

Most OEMs have tried to combat this fear by offering additional wholesale incentives or by providing deferred floor plan terms. 

A recent inventory analysis at vAuto uncovered that 60% fewer new vehicles were delivered to dealership lots the first week of April vs. the same week a year ago. Clearly, there’s a fair amount of pessimism at the inventory roulette table.  

But I’ve spoken with more optimistic dealers who’ve expressed good reasoning for why they will continue taking new vehicle deliveries, despite the gloomy economic outlook.   

Let’s take a closer look at the two differing perspectives on this topic and try to understand which group of dealers is making the wiser bet.

First, the Days’ Supply Math:

chart finkelmeyer revised (2).png

chart finkelmeyer revised (2)

(Days’ supply is based on rearward-looking 30-day actual sales – using 25 selling days in March and 26 selling days in April.)

The pure retail new-car seasonally adjusted annual rate dropped from 13.4 million in Feb to 8.7 million in March. Ouch. This drove the days’ supply numbers 53% higher to 116 days.   

The April sales forecast puts retail sales volume at 558,000 units for the month.  If we apply this sales volume to the ending March inventories, we can see that the industry days’ supply will climb from 116 days to 143 days. That’s a significant increase. That’s nearly a 6-month supply of new vehicles on dealer lots.

Based on the math, it’s hard to fault the dealers who are betting on red, or against taking more new vehicle deliveries. 

Now, let’s look at the reasons why the more bullish dealers continue to place their chips on black (taking more inventory). Consider the following:

  • OEM production has essentially halted globally, and it will likely be six months before normal production and inventory volumes begin flowing again. What dealers have on their lots today is likely what they will have to sell from for the next four to six months. Based on the math above, most dealers will need what they have on the ground just to get through this downturn in manufacturing.  

  • The auto industry is simply “too big to fail.” There are strong indications the government will launch another “cash for clunkers”-type program to spur demand sometime this summer, once there is more certainty around the health crisis. Morgan Stanley auto analyst Adam Jonas is reporting a new program would be in the $10 billion range vs. the 2009 “cash for clunkers,” which was $3 billion.

  • Unlike independent dealers, franchised retailers have a motivated partner in their OEM to help drive demand. The domestic makes have already shown a willingness to be aggressive with programs, like 0% APR financing for 84 months. In March, average incentive spend was 10.5% of average transaction price. According to the latest Cox Automotive 2020 COVID-19 Impact Study, one-third of shoppers are delaying their vehicle purchase, but  almost half of those could be spurred into action if they find the right deal.

  • Necessity vs. emotional purchases. Dealers tell me that about 50% of their new car sales are “necessity” purchases: lease turn-ins, life-changing events, totaled vehicles, etc. There will continue to be these purchases, some of which are likely being postponed until summer.

  • The financial cost of holding new vehicle inventory is quite low because interest rates have plummeted.

  • Cash flow. New-car deliveries bring with them holdbacks, floor plans, ad assistance dollars and pre-delivery inspection money for the technicians. In this moment where dealers are conscious about their cash on hand, new-car deliveries do create more cash. 

This economic downturn is having a massive impact on consumer demand and their ability to buy new vehicles. Consequently, dealer days’ supply at most stores has more than doubled since February, which has certainly raised some eyebrows and caution around the inventory roulette wheel.

However, with 2020 being an election year, there will be huge political motivation to get the economy and the American consumer back on track.

The potential Cash for Clunkers II could drive nearly 4 million units of sales volume. The OEMs are going to be more concerned about their own cash flow and less focused on margins, which means bigger consumer incentives.

All of these elements combined could create some big winners at the inventory roulette wheel.

Brian Finkelmeyer (2).png

Brian Finkelmeyer (2)

Last week, a dealer friend from North Carolina told me, “Dealers are optimists by nature. We always find a way to figure it out.”  (Brian Finkelmeyer, left)

If I were placing my bet at the new-vehicle inventory roulette wheel, I’d be betting with the optimists on black because I believe in three things: the American consumer’s resilience, American politicians’ willingness to spend money, and in the American car dealer’s ability to always figure it out.

Brian Finkelmeyer is Senior Director of New Car Strategies at vAuto, a Cox Automotive company.

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