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Editor's Notebook

Does Sharp Fall in Buying Intent Signal the End of the Car Culture?

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On the face of it, seven years doesn’t seem like much. Ask any parent. Seven years is the difference between bringing a newborn home and watching him or her get on a school bus. That time goes by in the blink of an eye.
Seven years, though, is a marketer’s dream. The highly prized 18-24-year-old demographic is constantly chased by TV networks and radio stations, all looking to drop advertisers neck-deep into this pool of eager buyers and “opinion leaders.”

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They are, for all intents and purposes, our economic future. What they decide will dictate entertainment, fashion, food, even car trends for years to come.

Tech companies lust after them, movies are written specifically to them, clothing designers want to wrap them up and put a bow on their pimply foreheads. Why? Marketers want to reach into their pocketbooks – perceived, despite the times, to be rife with loose cash – and establish a lifetime consumption pattern early on.

Little wonder, then, there is a bit of alarm about results from the most recent SEMA Consumer Demand Index, which tracks the performance product/accessory buying intentions of American drivers, slicing and dicing respondents by geography, gender, marital status and, of course, age.

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The results of the most recent CDI, conducted in mid-April, makes one wonder if our American car culture is coming to an end.

On an overall basis, the April CDI shows the 18-24-year-old bracket still leading the way in interest for “performance products and accessories.” While the 18-24 age group intent to buy index dropped 40 points in February, it vaulted to 211 in March before settling at 151 for April – by far the highest overall score among the CDI’s four age groups.
So what’s the problem? Let’s look closer.

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Considering just the “specialties, accessories and appearance products” segment of the study, the intent to buy index for 18-24-year-olds rated 0 in February, 1 in March and 2 in April. For the same period, the 25-44 age group indexed at 69 in February, 27 in March and 73 in April; 45-64-year-olds indexed at 35, 55 and 39; and the 65+ age group hit 51, 35 and 39.

For the “wheels, tires and suspension components” category, the 18-24-year-olds indexed at the same 0 in February, 1 in March and 2 in April. The 25-44 group rated their intent to buy at 18 in February, 13 in March and 50 in April; the 45-64 group was at 18, 18 and 21; and the 65+ crowd indexed at 21, 4 and 14.

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That’s a real double-whammy for the tire and wheel biz. Not only are consumers across all age groups less inclined to buy, the age group that led the street performance and tuner explosion – where new performance tires and wheels were among the very first things the young car owners bought – now rates tires and wheels below air fresheners and wax.

And when was that tuner explosion? Oh, yeah, about seven years ago.

“So how come the 18-24-year-olds indexed so high in the overall results?” you might ask. In the “racing and performance products” category – the smallest possible niche segment – intent to buy indexed at 171 in February, 345 in March and 316 in April. Big numbers in a small segment pushed the overall index through the roof.

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While it may be too early to call this a frightening trend, we can consider where we lost a huge segment of the driving populace.

High gas prices, which peaked in the $4 per gallon range just a few years ago. Crippling unemployment rates among 18-24-year-olds, especially among recent high school and college grads. A growing concern for the environment. All of these temper car-related buying decisions.

They aren’t driving as much, they can’t afford much and there are other things that capture their imaginations.

And consider this: today’s 18-24-year-olds have been fully immersed in our tech culture. They have “always” known video games and cell phones and iPods and music downloads and social media. They get their news and entertainment from the Interwebs, they make friends on the Interwebs, they shop on the Interwebs, they can even get a degree on the Interwebs.

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Instead of cars, they want technology. New tires and wheels for the old Civic? Nope. Those limited dollars are going for the latest game or a new Andriod cell phone or even an iPad. Geeks, not gearheads.

And that’s OK. We need not panic. But we do need to explore new ways of reaching these potential buyers. They can’t ride a Playstation 3 to work, after all – I mean, once they find a job.

Tastes certainly change, and marketers and retailers have always done a great job of keeping up with trends. Being in the tire industry, this is a tough pill to swallow. Hopefully we will figure it out.

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