Automakers will release their U.S. sales results next week. And the entire automotive world will be hungering for information on how the industry fared through the escalating COVID-19 outbreak.
But we won't know. That's because a big chunk of the industry has moved to quarterly sales reports. So when the numbers come out April 1, all we'll get from most of the big players is a combined figure for January, February and March.
Anyone outside the federal government and a few privileged data houses might as well read tea leaves to guess how things went in the most pivotal month this industry has seen since at least 2008.
This started two years ago, when General Motors ended a long-standing practice. Its last monthly report, oddly enough, was a winner: double-digit gains for each brand in March 2018, up 16 percent overall.
"Thirty days is not enough time to separate real sales trends from short-term fluctuations in a very dynamic, highly competitive market," GM U.S. sales boss Kurt McNeil said then.
As predicted, others followed. So now, when Automotive News publishes its monthly figures, the list comprises a small group of transparency all-stars: Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Toyota and Volvo. Those companies accounted for 38 percent of sales in the U.S. last year. And this year, at least through the happier days of January and February, each of those automakers tallied sales increases for 2020.
But March will be a different matter: J.D. Power and Associates last week estimated industrywide March sales will plunge 41 percent from a year earlier. April and beyond probably will be even worse.
But we won't get an official read on the reality until July.
Sales information is the statistical lifeline of this industry. And so are the inventory reports drawn from it.
It was one thing to go quarterly when U.S. sales were humming along at 17 million year after year. It's quite another thing now.
The suppliers, the vendors, the thousands of companies that provide services are making decisions daily. In this climate, they need to know more than four times a year precisely how their customers and their competitors are doing. Automakers that stopped reporting monthly sales need to bring them back. Consider it a public service.