The pandemic has done and continues to do untold damage across all sectors of the economy. Automotive retailing, with its focus on in-person deals, has been among the hardest hit. In this space I’ve talked about success stories, those dealerships that have managed to adapt to the demands of the pandemic, and somehow thrive. Now, I want to talk about the industry’s most unlikely saviors of all: Millennials.
Millennials get a bad rap. As a generation, they have the lowest purchasing power since we started keeping track of that sort of thing. They can hardly be blamed for that, being hit with two once-in-a-generation recessions twelve years apart during their working primes. In addition, as a generation they are far more car-averse than their predecessors: according to one figure a whopping 79% of people ages 25-35 don’t own a car.
It makes sense when you think about it. In addition to all above, Millennials tend to be urban dwellers. Multiple studies have traced the migration of Millennials (and younger Gen Xers) to cities in large numbers. Cars are often unnecessary in cities, where public transportation, cabs, and ride sharing is more than enough to get around (unless you live in L.A., but that’s a whole other thing). In addition, Millennials often either live with parents or multiple roommates, and can presumably borrow a car from mom or the one roommate who has one when they have a need. So you’re left with a generation that doesn’t need to own a car and couldn’t afford one even if they wanted to. Small wonder they’re not your traditional dealership owner’s favorite people.
But as it has done with so many things, COVID-19 has changed the landscape. Most obviously, the pandemic has made public transportation extremely unattractive. No one wants to climb into an overcrowded subway car with zero circulation. Those things are basically infection tubes, and that was before the pandemic. While cabs and ride shares are safer, many Millennials are reluctant to expose themselves to even that level of risk. This leaves one option: getting a car of their own. The data bears this out: in one survey, Millennials cited “greater control of hygiene” as a prime reason to own a car.
In addition, we’re all going a little stir crazy from being cooped up at home. “Sunday drives” are making a comeback as a safe way for people to get out for a little while. With reduced traffic on the roads, these types of excursions are more popular. Again, this outlet is something that requires a vehicle of one’s own.
According to the survey quoted above, 45% of respondents (all ages 25-35) who didn’t own a car plan to buy one. While financing is still a concern—the pandemic didn’t exactly magically heal the generation’s economic woes—it’s a promising sign of a new market. Dealerships willing to work with these prospective buyers on a financing plan may find themselves in much better shape to weather the current economic storm.
When the pandemic crashed into our lives last March, the prognosis in the automotive retailing industry was apocalyptic. Selling cars has been almost perversely different from every other retailing experience in the modern age: haggling is the norm, deals are done face to face and sealed with a handshake, and cars are almost never purchased without a test drive.