Buyers Snapping Up New Cars, Even If They’re the Wrong Color

A Ford Motor Co. car dealership in North Brunswick, New Jersey.

Photographer: Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

Emboldened by signs the Covid-19 crisis may be waning and fearful of potential vehicle shortages, consumers snapped up new autos at pre-pandemic rates in the first quarter as the U.S. car market’s recovery likely gained momentum.

U.S. auto sales surged by more than 8% in the first three months of the year, according to analysts’ estimates. The projected gain was powered by higher demand in anticipation of a return to offices and everyday travel as vaccination rates exceeded one-quarter of the population. Greater confidence in the economy spurred purchases as did fear of lower supplies of cars due to chip shortages.

That has left consumers scrambling for any steering wheel they can lay their hands on, accepting less-than-optimal colors, features and even swapping to a different model entirely if they must.

“There’s a little FOMO going on here, fear of missing out,” said Jeff Schuster, president of the Americas and global vehicle forecasting at researcher LMC Automotive. “Consumers have sacrificed on choice because the color combination or option combination they wanted wasn’t available, but they bought a vehicle anyway. You take what you can get right now.”

Most major automakers — including General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. — are expected to report their U.S. new vehicle deliveries for the January-March period on Thursday.

The projected sales acceleration is part of a trend that began soon after factories reopened last summer and has persisted in the months since then. This year’s gains come from retail buyers, whose purchases soared 20% compared to a year ago — a period that largely predated the onset of shelter-in-place orders. Retail deliveries are forecast to have reached 3.16 million vehicles in the quarter, the second-highest total ever, according to researcher J.D. Power.

Road to Recovery

Sales are roaring back from an 11.4 million selling rate last March

Source: Bloomberg News analyst survey

The increase might even be more pronounced if it weren’t for the bottom dropping out from under sales to multiple-vehicle buyers. Those fleet purchases — often at discounted rates — to corporate and government customers fell by about 30% in the first quarter, according to analysts’ estimates. That reflected both lower demand from rental car and other fleet buyers as well as dwindling vehicle supplies as automakers prioritized higher-margin retail sales.

Katherine E. Ackerman

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