Despite a long, hot summer of uncertainty – when sales fell 30 percent because of $4-a-gallon gas – pickups will again take center stage at the State Fair of Texas today.Dodge will prominently display its 2009 Ram pickup, including a Lone Star edition of the all-new truck, when the fair opens this morning. Ford, meanwhile, will show its 2009 F-150 pickups, as well as a new model of the big Super Duty called the Cabela Edition. Trucks still matter.
Both companies are far more optimistic now about the critical pickup segment – the domestics’ largest source of profit – than they were just 90 days ago.
“For the time being, we have hit bottom,” said Mark Fields, president of Ford Motor Co.’s Americas division. “We’ll see some variations in sales from fuel costs. But I don’t think we’ll see the big swings that we saw this spring.”
“Pickup truck sales in August were the highest [nationally] that they’ve been all year, and ours were double what they were in June,” said Jim Yetter, senior manager for Dodge launches. “It kind of proved to us that the segment is here to stay.”
In August, lower gas prices and heavy truck incentives allowed the pickup segment to regain some traction. At their peak four years ago, 2.5 million pickups were sold in the U.S. – a number that has plummeted 40 percent to a projected 1.5 million this year.
The dive alarmed Detroit, prompting many in the auto industry to wonder if the segment was in a free fall with no bottom in sight. Worries multiplied this week with the collapse of some Wall Street financial institutions and a likely prolonged credit crunch.
But after some extensive consumer research this summer, Dodge and Ford officials say they are confident that most truck owners are sticking with their pickups.
“Back in March, April, May, a lot of us weren’t sure that even with incentives that the customers were there,” said Doug Scott, truck marketing manager for the Ford Division. “It is clear to us now that the majority of full-size truck owners are still truck buyers.”
That is an important finding for both of the struggling manufacturers. The Dodge Ram and the Ford F-series trucks are the automakers’ top-selling vehicles – and by a large margin. And while the truck segment has shrunk, both still depend heavily on revenue from the trucks, analysts say.
The new ’09 Ram goes on sale this week at dealerships, and the restyled ’09 F-150 arrives early next year.
“We don’t believe that there has been a fundamental shift in consumer preference,” said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for J.D. Power and Associates. “In ’73-74 and ’78-79, when similar fuel spikes depressed pickup sales, the segment came back.”
Prior to this year, most in the industry thought that pickups attracted two main groups of buyers: those such as contractors and construction workers who needed them for their jobs, and more casual owners who used them as commuter vehicles or for weekend chores or play.
In research, though, Chrysler found that there may be as many as five distinct groups of truck buyers
“Just understanding this gives you a pretty good view of what is going on in the segment,” said Dodge’s Mr. Yetter. “It is a lot more complex than we had thought.”
Ford’s Mr. Scott agreed. In a study of its own in July, Ford surveyed 2,000 full-size pickup owners and followed those up with focus-group interviews in Texas and Georgia.
“One of the big discoveries from this research is back in March, April and May, we said those casual buyers are gone,” he said. “What the research told us is some will be back and others never gave up their trucks – they just bought small cars to commute in and used their trucks on weekends.”
J.D. Power and Associates expects pickups to remain the third-largest segment in the auto industry for at least the next several years, with sales hovering at their current level through 2013 – somewhere between 1.4 million and 1.6 million trucks a year, Mr. Libby said.
“This segment should always have decent sales because there is no real alternative to full-size pickups for people who need them,” he said.
The seeming shift to small cars earlier this summer was “really to a very narrow range of small cars that got over 30 miles per gallon, and they were hot for three months,” said Paul Taylor, chief economist of the National Automobile Dealers Association.
“If we get back to where people think gas prices will stay at $3 to $4, we’ll see more of a shift back to larger vehicles,” Mr. Taylor said.
At Hayden Elder’s Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership in Athens, the buyers are already back. With help from some generous factory incentives, he says he had his best sales month in 25 years in August – and 80 percent of his sales are trucks.
“Let’s go back to the late ’70s with the oil embargo,” said Mr. Elder, co-chairman of the national Chrysler Dealers Council.
“I was working at a Chevy store and guys in big Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks would drive in and drive out in Chevettes. One year later, used-car lots all over town were full of Chevettes.
“History repeats itself,” he said.