Mainstream Automotive Consumer Outlook 2009

As the light-truck market grew beyond the scope of dedicated enthusiasts and proliferated into the mainstream, a number of SEMA member companies became more and more dependent on these sales to buffer their business. As the U.S. economic situation grew more difficult, these additional consumers stopped shopping for automotive performance parts and accessories. Their commitment to the lifestyle is more capricious than the hardcore hobbyist.

The fact that many of these same industry companies also concentrate on modifications for vehicles produced by Detroit compounds the effects, especially when you consider what is happening to the automakers today. 

“In 2008, sales for U.S. vehicles hit a low not seen since the early '80s," said Rob Tregenza, vice president consumer strategist, Iconoculture. "Now the emphasis is on how automakers will have to redefine themselves to survive a hyper-volatile year. The year 2009 is about understanding a new auto era, marked by permanent behavioral change. From micro cars and alternative fuel options to conservation and a flexible family fleet, mainstream consumers are making smarter, longer-term decisions about mobility."

Tregenza added, "Preservation is the savvy driver’s best defense. It’s a pattern that doesn't bode well for new-vehicle sales, but it does open opportunities to forge new connections with consumers who are going to be buying fewer cars in the future. High-ticket items, such as automobiles, are still emotional decisions. The consumer love affair with the car isn’t over yet; it’s just becoming high-maintenance.” 

In 2007, SEMA launched an industry index program in which consumers were polled each month to find out what they were planning in the way of automotive modifications. The program involves mostly mainstream consumers and issues a forecast for near-future spending habits.

In February, the SEMA Performance Product and Accessory Demand Index (PADI) improved 7 points, increasing from 36 in January to 43, and marking the second month that the index has risen. Not quite strong enough to say the downward trend is over, but definitely encouraging.

This month, 11% of adult American drivers (more than 12 million households) indicated that they had plans to purchase performance products and accessories sometime within the next three months, and 17% of those modifications are planned for pickups. While this is a decline from the 19% who planned to modify a pickup during the same period of time last year, overall new pickup sales have dropped 38% in January compared to the same month last year, showing that despite sales declines, pickup accessorization demand is relatively steady.

In terms of other vehicle types owned by consumers planning to purchase accessories, 28.6% plan to enhance a midsize car, 12.4% a compact car, 12.1% a small SUV, 9.9% a subcompact car, 8.9% a fullsize car, 5.4% a minivan, 3.4% a large SUV and 2.3% either refused to answer the question or were unsure.

Only time will tell for sure, but if the trend continues in March, we could see some light in the 2009 market for light-truck performance parts and accessories. — SEMA Research & Information Center

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