WARSAW -- New-car sales in Poland have plummeted in the past four months as the country's consumers increasingly cross the border to buy used cars in western Europe.
One Polish newspaper even advertises used-car package tours to Germany and Belgium for would-be car buyers. Participants are offered a complete assistance package including legal and logistical help to bring the cars back to Poland.
Poland's September new-car sales were down 32.1 percent to 20,571 units compared with the same month last year. It was the country's worst September result in five years.
Used-car imports for the first eight months of 2004 were more than 400,000 units, compared with 155,257 units during the same period last year.
The trend has alarmed car companies such as Fiat, Toyota and Peugeot, which have all seen their new-car sales plunge in central Europe's largest auto market.
"It is a disaster for us," said Fabrice d'Arche, Fiat's head of sales in Poland. "Our market share in September is a clear demonstration of how bad it is."
Fiat, which is Poland's No. 1 new-car retailer, saw September sales drop nearly 58 percent to 2,586 units.
Said Jan Okulicz, Toyota Poland spokesman: "The number of imported used cars is appallingly high."
He said many buyers were choosing to purchase used cars such as a 5-year-old BMW instead of a new Toyota Yaris. Toyota's September sales were down almost 47 percent to 1,984 units compared with last year.
Said Piotr Wypychowicz, Peugeot's sales advisor in Poland: "Before May, we sold a lot of vehicles and nobody expected that we would stop selling."
Peugeot sales in September were down 33.2 percent to 1,551 units.
Why are Polish consumers suddenly buying used cars in western Europe?
Because they can.
Before the country joined the EU in May, Poland protected its domestic auto industry by requiring that imported used cars fulfill Euro 2 emission regulations. But the Polish government had to scrap the rule to comply with EU fair-trading regulations.
Many Polish consumers also have been hit by price increase on goods since the country joined the EU and cannot afford new cars.
Said Harry Sanne, managing director of BfI, Germany's association of independent automobile importers: "New cars are already beyond the average customer's means."
Polish new-car prices also have increased about 2 percent per month since January, said Edyta Wasiluk, head of price research at Eurotax Polska.
And new models introduced in Poland this year, including the Opel Astra and Ford Focus, are priced E2,300 to E3,500 higher than the models they replace.
Experts also attribute some of the decline to a binge in new-car sales earlier this year. Before Poland entered the EU May 1, individuals who anticipated price increases and companies that foresaw higher VAT taxes for businesses hurried to buy new cars, Fiat's d'Arche said.
Wojciech Drzewiecki, head of the SAMAR, an auto research institute in Warsaw, said he expects about 335,000 new-car sales in Poland this year, down from 353,635 in 2003.
That would be a 5 percent decline, but with the downside entirely in the last eight months.