Lots Of Spin To GM, Ford Sales Declines

The headlines offer little sunshine for Detroit this morning –- combined U.S. market share for the Big Three slipped 4.5 percentage points to 43.1% -- but they come heavily asterisked, including the fact that (Fiat-controlled) Chrysler’s sales were up 13% and, as a Wall Street Journal story put it a couple of days ago, now “is propping up its majority owner.” 

“Honda Leads U.S. Auto Sales Gains as Toyota Extends Rebound,” reads Bloomberg Businessweek.” “GM and Ford See Auto Sales Fall in July as Rivals Post Gains,” says the Los Angeles Times.

“Auto sales in the United States cooled off in July as the two biggest American carmakers, General Motors and the Ford Motor Company, reported declines that they attributed partly to lower sales to rental car fleets,” writes the New York Times’ Bill Vlasic, who also points out that a surge by Toyota and Honda can partly be attributed to the Japanese automakers’ recovery from the inventory shortages precipitated by last year’s earthquake and tsunami.



General Motors reported a 6.4% drop; Ford sales fell 3.8%. The Los Angeles Times’s Jerry Hirsch concisely runs down all the numbers here

“U.S. market share for Japanese and South Korean automakers rose to 46.9% last month from 42.8% a year earlier, according to Woodcliff, N.J.-based Autodata,” writesBloomberg Businessweek’s Alan Ohnsman. Overall, sales rose 9%, even though July 2012 had two fewer selling days than July 2011, Ted Reed reports on The Street.com.

Honda sales were up 45%. The takeaway, TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak tells Ohnsman, is “how loyal Honda buyers are.” Not only is the Japanese automaker “winning back market share, they’re doing it faster than anyone expected.”

Analysts were wont to see the glass as half full. “The bottom line is that pent-up demand for autos is still strong and can be expected to continue, given the aging fleet and the current expansion of credit," Edmunds.com economist Lacey Plache tells Reed.

GM’s interim global CMO, Alan Bate, meanwhile, told the media yesterday that he has no intention of changing the course set by departed CMO Joel Ewanick. He blamed last month’s sales decline on a “one-time blip” in fleet sales, the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Bennett reports.

"Are we changing strategy? Are we evaluating any of our partners? No," Batey says.

Bennett points out that GM is struggling to “connect with consumers” in recent months “despite a $4.5 billion global ad budget.” 

Citing the Chevy Cruze as an example, Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell tells Bennett that GM loyalists generally support new models but that sales erode over time. The compact Cruze saw sales slip 39% in July and it’s no longer the market leader it had briefly been.

"GM tends to be hot out of the gate but then they tend to fade over time," says Caldwell.

But Kurt McNeil, GM’s vp of U.S. sales operations, says fleet sales of the Cruze plummeted from 26% in July 2011 to about 70 units last month –- and that’s a good thing. “This is going to pay long-term dividends to Cruze’s brand image and resale value,” says McNeil, Plus, the vehicle’s average transaction price is about $2,000 higher than its competitors, Chevy’s U.S. sales chief Don Johnson points out in a piece by the Detroit Free Press’ Nathan Bomey. 

In the end, do one month’s worth of data amount to much more than a hill of bean-counters’ beans? Detroit Free Press columnist Tom Walsh cites an analysis by Jon Gabrielsen, an ex-pat Detroit native with both an MBA and engineering degrees, who finds that GM's market share has tumbled from 44% in 1980 to around 18% today.

“‘What should be terrifying for both GM and southeast Michigan,’ says Gabrielsen, noting that the region's employment levels correlate closely to Detroit Three market share, is that GM's share has eroded steadily ‘with no meaningful change in the trend since bankruptcy,’” Walsh writes.

In other words, although the Detroit automakers have rebounded from the lows that resulted from the Great Recession, their combined share is still below what it was in 2007. Gabrielsen says that market share revivals have occurred in other industries but "it usually takes a big bang of some sort to change perception." 

Rather than a big bang, what we’ve seen over the last months at GM is the steady pffffft of air leaking. It remains to be seen if futbol will solve the problem globally.

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