The national and trade press headlines of a global pandemic that emerged at the beginning of 2020 had most of us in the automotive industry looking ahead with logical concern that if our nation went into a lockdown mode, all driving would cease and the bottom would fall out. And while April 2020 did prove to be a very tough month for the industry, consumers were stuck at home and forced to seek out new things to do. For many of these people, that newfound spare time was coupled with an economic stimulus payment in late April 2020. As a result, discretionary purchases in support of do-it-yourself projects and new forms of recreation began to quickly increase. Meanwhile, the essential worker, who never stopped going to work, kept up their normal day-to-day driving behavior. With those two factors combined, 2020 proved to be a much better year than originally anticipated for the retail aftermarket.
Through NPD’s various data assets on the automotive aftermarket, we started noticing that consumer behavior was quickly shifting at retail, notably after the first round of economic stimulus payments rolled out in late April 2020. More broadly across retail, industries and categories that supported any home-based activity, including working, cooking, schooling, home-improvement, and even vehicle projects, started performing noticeably well. For the aftermarket, we classified trend-driving consumer behavior into a few buckets: distressed purchases, DIY projects, recreation, and as-needed (translated to not needed as much right now). Some of our core categories that are more needs-based, such as wipers and motor oil, didn’t perform quite as well as the discretionary categories across the store that experienced double-digit growth. Consumers were looking to the garage for the next at-home project.
The calendar has turned to a new year, vaccines are rolling out, and there seems to be a sense of light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. For the aftermarket, there are a number of critical inflection points that need to be considered when thinking about how our immediate future might play out. Transitions back to an office / schoolhouse setting, shifting discretionary spending dollars back to entertainment and travel, and consumers re-considering mass transportation are all areas that we will watch in the months ahead. Putting those metrics aside, the logical question for our industry is “what is next?” Once things return to normal, do we find out that this sales lift was temporary and consumer behavior will shift back to status quo?
At NPD, we are of the belief that a massive opportunity exists right now to deeply understand who the people are that have been driving up sales, particularly those who are new to the auto aftermarket customer base. What makes them tick? What do they drive? How can we keep them engaged with our industry once the COVID-19 dust settles down? Do we have a way of recontacting them down the road to remind them that their hobbies await them in the garage? Are we continuing to support future DIY behavior by encouraging parents to include their kids in these projects when appropriate to do so? As we look at the opportunities that lie ahead, taking time to deeply understand what is happening right now will pay very nice dividends in the years ahead.