Sheena Leaman took the keys to her 2020 Chevy Equinox and breathed a sigh of relief.
"I was worried due to these trying times," said the 23-year-old machine operator from Clinton Township. "I went to multiple car dealerships and they were giving me crazy prices. The rebates are not as great as they were. And my lease was coming to an end."
She is one of many car shoppers who has been uncertain about what to expect from the impact of newly relaxed stay-home restrictions related to the coronavirus and how it might affect her shopping choices. Meanwhile, car dealers say they're overjoyed to see people, but they're now coping with a rapidly shrinking supply of vehicles. The Detroit Three stopped car production from mid-March to mid-May because of the pandemic.
And now, well, pickings are slim.
"We have back orders on everything," said Sam Pack, president and CEO of Pack Auto Group based in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. "The Ford Edge, Escape, Expedition, Explorer, F-150, Super Duty, Mustang, Ranger. But the Ranger is our shortest availability of all our vehicles. All four of our Ford dealerships have a total of 14 Rangers when we normally would have 100."
He owns six Five Star dealerships; four Ford, one Chevrolet and one Subaru.
"We're short of inventory in all vehicle lines. The Chevy inventory is more severe than Ford, particularly Silverado. We have 22 light duty (Silverado) pickups in stock. We will run out in June," Pack said. "And we will run out of F-150s at the pace we're running now if, in fact, production doesn't keep pace. We usually sell about 300 a month."
For pretty much everybody, the shortage "will be with us another 60 to 90 days," he said.
And this is why Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and the overall auto industry are adding production shifts to ramp up their factories as quickly as possible. Dealers noted that the process hasn't been without challenges, including disruption at Ford plants. Getting parts from Mexico has caused delay, too.
Chris Ferlito, 32, a lawyer from Grosse Pointe Farms, wanted to lease a 2020 Chevrolet Suburban as quickly as possible to accommodate the latest addition to his family of five.
"We knew exactly what we wanted and we were able to get it," he said, grateful he shopped in May with Brian Carroll Automotive rather than waiting. He received his keys on Thursday.
Jeep? Blazer? Good luck
"Dude, we're rocking," said Thad Szott, co-owner of Szott Auto Group in White Lake Charter Township. "The internet leads are coming in at a pace where we're almost struggling to keep up. With Ram Truck and the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, we're definitely concerned about having enough inventory versus demand."
He said his customers so love the new delivery model, where everything is done at the buyer's home, he isn't sure if many folks will return to dealerships.
Brian Carroll of Brian Carroll Automotive Group in Macomb Township is seeing the same thing in his work as a car concierge who partners with different dealerships. "Chevy Silverado, Dodge Ram and Jeep Compass are very tough. The pickup situation, all of it, including GMCs. We're also having a tough time with the Chevy Blazer."
He was happy to find Leaman the Equinox she wanted almost immediately.
Spend $400 to save $1,200
"Lack of inventory won’t be a long-term problem provided Mexico gets online, but it will delay some sales for May-July perhaps into later months of 2020," said David Whiston, equity strategist of U.S. autos for Morningstar Research Services.
Inventory disruption is the price to pay when production drops 100% and buying drops only 50%, said Bernard Swiecki, senior automotive analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, an industry think tank. "We are refilling that pipeline. Problem is, there's a lag."
Karl Brauer, executive editor of Kelley Blue Book, said, "We're watching kind of a control-alt-delete effect on the entire automotive system. The power cord got pulled and it's like a computer that has to start all over again. The supply system, production, distribution — all these things have to be reset."
As a result, he said, car shoppers may need to look outside their ZIP code. "Expand your search. You may want to spend $400 on travel and save $1,200."
Three Silverados left
Only three Silverados remained at Gordon Chevrolet in Garden City as of May 28. At Gordon Chevrolet in Orange Park, Florida, a suburb of Jacksonville, fewer than five were left, said Gordon Stewart, owner of both dealerships.
“With the factories shut down, it’s just devastating," Stewart said.
GM suffered a double whammy on production. It fell behind during the 40-day strike by the UAW last fall, which shut down manufacturing throughout the U.S., and then the automaker's ability to replenish supplies was ruined by the industry shutdown related to COVID-19.
"We’ve got 300 vehicles in stock in Detroit and normally we have 700 or 800," Stewart said. "This is the peak selling season. It’s going to be a long time before we can restock to meet the pent-up demand."
Stewart does not expect to have adequate inventory until the end of the year. That means if a lease expires and he doesn't have the vehicle someone wants in stock, the customer may have to keep theleased car longer.
"It's uncharted territory and we don’t know what’s going to happen," Stewart said.
For now, customers will still get a good deal, because if dealers don't sell a certain percentage of their inventory, they can't order more new models from the factory, Stewart said.
"So we still have to sell them at an aggressive price," Stewart said. "But you have better choices now while there’s still inventory left. I can satisfy everyone now except for Silverado buyers. We’d have to work very, very hard to find what they want.”
Supplies of the Ford F-150, the bestselling pickup since the beginning of time, is making dealers a little nervous.
"We sell 90 F-150s a month and 30 to 40 Super Dutys," said Jeff King, vice president and general manager at Bozard Ford Lincoln in St. Augustine, Florida.
King is waiting on more than 500 vehicles to replenish the inventory at his dealership. Customers have placed orders for a dozen of those — highly sought Ford Explorers, F-150s, Super Duty trucks and Lincoln Aviators.
Meanwhile, King has another 600 orders, most of which are for Police Interceptor SUVs and Super Duty trucks used for utility work and construction in municipalities throughout Florida.
Ford dealers say the appetite for pickups is as strong as ever.
Chad Wilson, general manager of Wilson Ford in Saginaw and Midland Ford, said: "We figure the F-150 shortage is going to come a little later. Where our stores normally sell 80 new cars in a month, 40 will be the F-150. You can go from having too much F-150 to not enough in two weeks."
But the F-150 supply isn't the only concern. He has about 20 Ford Explorer SUVs on back order, about half a dozen Ford Edge orders.
"We've been putting in orders in March, April and May, most of which haven't started production," Wilson said.
The second half of March is usually one of the biggest time slots for car sales because shoppers in cold climates wait until after the winter salt and rust season, but that last half of March was shut down this year by the pandemic, dealers noted.
Who's got the upper hand?
Just keeping loyal customers right now is a top priority, said Mohamad "Catfish" Baidoun, a longtime car salesman at Jorgensen Ford in Dearborn.
"We don't have enough vehicles to try and get people from other companies to switch over. In the past, we always got a conquest rebate if people came over from Chrysler or GM or Mercedes. Not now," he said. "We're extremely low on the Explorer, Edge, Escape. I try and get an idea of what people want and have them order a vehicle and do an extension on a lease until the car comes in. That's the only option we have right now."
He noted, "I have about five Explorer orders now that I ordered two to three months ago and they're still in the system. When I look up to see when the vehicles will be here, it says TBD. It doesn't give a day or time or nothing."
The Ford Explorer, the Police Interceptor SUV and the Lincoln Aviator are built at Chicago Assembly, which shut down the first week of the restart due to COVID-19.
Only two Silverados remain at Dick Genthe Chevrolet in Southgate, said Bruce Genthe, dealership president. But he has 45 on order.
Overall, the store has about 200 vehicles in inventory, slightly below what it would normally stock. But the limited number of the hot sellers is, in some ways, helping close deals, Genthe said.
“We’re seeing a steady flow of customers with the appointments," he said. "We are working the best we can to find them a deal and they are pulling the trigger on it rather than going from store to store and redoing the paperwork.”
Matthew Kennedy of LaSalle leased a 2020 Chevrolet Traverse in black cherry from Genthe after searching elsewhere.
"I went to look at one in Monroe, they had four on the lot. They only had a handful left at Genthe right now too, but they had the color I wanted," Kennedy said.
The lease on Kennedy's 2018 Traverse was not mature until August, but he wanted to swap it now in the hope of getting a good deal as dealers come back online.
"I ended up with a good deal at the end of the day," Kennedy said. "But with such little inventory out there. I think the dealers have the upper hand on making the deal right now. That’s just my opinion.”
'Shop now' or ...
Dealer Wes Lutz at Extreme Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Jackson said anyone who has decided they want to get a new car shouldn't wait.
"I would shop today," Lutz said. "Don’t wait another 30 days because we won’t have any new product in 30 days," he said. "You need to go shop now because you’ll have the best selection."
Even used-car inventory is not what it typically is this time of year, he said.
"The used-car auctions are shut down," Lutz said. "We’re doing virtual auctions, but it’s hard to buy cars without touching and seeing them.”
His dealership typically sells about 200 cars a month, but he worries he won't hit that if he can't get more Ram 1500 pickups and Jeep models in stock.
Extreme Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram has just 30 Ram pickups and only eight Jeep Gladiators, said General Manager Mark Trudell, urging people to find their vehicles in the next two to four weeks.
"The choices are going to get pretty slim and the opportunity for dealers to do dealer trades has definitely shortened up," Trudell said. "Dealers are holding on to their inventory and I don’t blame them."
The J.D. Power Auto Industry Impact Report issued May 28 said inventory levels may fall by 1.1 million units to 2.5 million in June.
"Continued success will depend on production, allocation and geographic targeted incentives," the report said. "Production outlook is uncertain."
Emmanuel Rosner, a Deutsche Bank analyst, wrote investors on May 22 that "dealers are concerned that they may run out of inventory by June due to production stoppages throughout North America."
But scarcity of supply in high-profit pickups may mean higher consumer prices, he wrote, noting pickups' growing market share of overall vehicle sales in the U.S. to 21% in April.
A shift in focus
Dealers are already seeing pretty crazy activity.
"We had a client come all the way from Texas because he couldn't find what he wanted between Houston and Saginaw, Michigan: a Ford Escape Hybrid for his wife in dark Persian green," Wilson said. "He and his wife each drove up and traded in their two cars."
Some dealers are expecting such a spike in sales in coming months that they're making dramatic shifts in their inventory strategy, even focusing more on used cars.
"At the end of February, we had th $212 million in new vehicle inventory, and at the end of April we were at $157 million. We'll end May at roughly $120 million in inventory," said Pack, who noted dealerships in Texas didn't all shut down the way they did in the rest of the country, though different counties had different rules.
"We just bought 100 Subarus that are 'off-lease vehicles' because our sales data tells us we will be out of new vehicle inventory come July," he said. "If we're going to have anything to sell during the month of July and early part of August, we must focus on pre-owned vehicles."