Will there be pent-up demand for auto sales after the worst of the coronavirus outbreak is over?
Data about online shopping activity has given industry observers some optimism about how the auto market might bounce back.
"We see there being plenty of demand" when business returns to normal, Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Cox Automotive, said on a conference call Tuesday.
"Through the latest week, retail sales nationwide are down about two-thirds relative to the same week last year," Smoke said. "But on the shopping side, we're closer to 11 or 12 percent down, meaning that there's still traffic. There's still consumers engaging for both new and used vehicles."
In an interview last week, Smoke also pointed out that the virus has had a lesser impact on consumer website traffic than on vehicle sales. Automaker incentives are getting shoppers' attention, he said, but in some cases they're not yet leading to sales because would-be buyers are prevented from transacting because of government orders that have temporarily closed showrooms.
LotLinx, an automotive marketing technology company that targets buyers deep in the buying process, says its data about inventory and shopper volumes through the end of March and into April also indicates consumers remain interested in buying cars. The COVID-19 outbreak is keeping many low-funnel prospective buyers from completing purchases, CEO Len Short told Automotive News.
"I think we have evidence that when markets open up, people will buy more cars," Short said.
In the U.S., it's unknown how long that will take. Record numbers of workers filed for unemployment benefits last month as businesses across the country shut their doors or began operating with limited service.
But the shopping data could be an early sign that consumers will return to the auto market — even if they can't yet take the keys.