It’s a pivotal time for dealers retailing used cars as they head into the final quarter of 2022.
Why pivotal? Well, there’s been a marked shift in consumer and dealer sentiment about where the used vehicle market is headed as we close out the year. The shift owes in large part to the Federal Reserve’s decision a week ago to raise interest rates again. Since the early part of the year, the Fed’s rate increases have totaled almost 3 percent—the highest increases in a single year since the early 1980s.
Cox Automotive chief economist Jonathan Smoke says the Fed’s aggressive, inflation-fighting stance is hastening an “affordability crisis” in used vehicles. Cox Automotive analysts note the average used vehicle monthly payment is 47 percent higher today (at roughly $551 a month) compared to 2019, and they expect the amount to climb to nearly $570 by the end of the year, as the market adjusts to the Fed’s recent moves.
In a presentation this week, Smoke’s team has also reduced its projection of retail used vehicle sales in 2022 to 19.1 million, down almost 2 million units from last year, and believes affordability and supply issues will dampen demand and sales even further in 2023.
The pivot point for dealers rests with how they plan to move forward in the final months of 2022 and beyond. Will you look at the current conditions as an opportunity to do even better, or default to a belief where you simply can’t do better, because of the less-than-favorable market conditions?
Put me in the camp that believes that any moment of crisis or uncertainty in the car business represents an opportunity for dealers who have the discipline and will to pursue it.
Right now, it appears that dealers will need to muster both discipline and will if they want to seize the opportunities that have already begun to emerge.
For example, while we’re seeing wholesale values of vehicles depreciate faster than normal for this time of year, retail asking prices have yet to reflect the wholesale value decline. This current dynamic creates an arbitrage moment for disciplined dealers to make money and sell more cars. In recent days, I’ve talked to several dealers who have positioned themselves for the opportunity, and I thought it would be useful to offer a high-level view of how they’ve arrived there.
First, the dealers have been running lean levels of retail inventory. Across the country, the days supply of used vehicles is roughly 10 percent higher than it was a year ago, around 50 days. That’s not the case for opportunity-minded dealers who, through the summer and early fall, reduced their inventory levels to match a rolling 30-day total of retail sales. Today, these dealers are busy buying cars with an opportunity to move, and make gross, them while other dealers are waiting for their vehicles to sell.
The opportunity-minded dealers have also been sharp about the composition of their inventories. Cox Automotive data shows that the largest segment of inventory in dealer lots across the country consists of vehicles valued at $35,000 and higher—a price segment that’s the least affordable for buyers worried about higher mortgage payments and inflation.
There are a lot of reasons for the skew toward higher-value vehicles, and some of them are reasonable and right, especially for dealers who make certified pre-owned sales a priority. But opportunity-minded dealers have recognized the risks higher-value vehicles represent, particularly as new vehicle inventories continue to grow. These dealers tend to have higher shares of $15,000 to $30,000 vehicles in their inventories than their peers to address the broader affordability concerns.
The opportunity-minded dealers have also been disciplined about getting out of higher-risk vehicles faster, even if it means taking a retail loss. In ProfitTime GPS, we can see that the overall share of high-risk, Bronze vehicles is growing, and the average age of these vehicles is climbing, too. Why? Because the dealers are, on average, pricing them $1,000-plus above the system’s recommendations, which strikes me as “wishful thinking” in the current market.
By contrast, the opportunity-minded dealers have brought a higher level of pricing discipline into their used vehicle departments in recent months. They’re watching the market every day and adjusting their asking prices to reflect current conditions. Their high-risk, low ROI cars are selling in 20 days or less, and their low-risk, high-ROI cars are selling in 40 to 50 days, as they should.
Perhaps the most-difficult aspect of re-exerting the stocking and pricing discipline it takes to seize the current opportunity rests with the success nearly every dealer has found without it. A recent report from the National Automobile Dealers Association suggests that dealers will end the year in a very profitable position, even if they’re making a little less, and retailing fewer used vehicles, than they did last year.
But now’s not the time to rest on past success. Instead, it’s time to plot a new course to find tomorrow’s opportunity, which will always be there, if you get after it. That’s what makes the current moment so pivotal.