Light-vehicle sales sputtered in the U.S. last month despite generous Labor Day holiday deals, with most of the market’s biggest sellers reporting declines from the prior September.
While the pace of sales remains historically strong, dealership traffic is cooling after more than six years of steady growth. General Motors Co. , Ford Motor Co. , Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Honda Motor Co. posted declines. Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. notched gains.
Retail demand has eased from a robust clip set in the final six months of 2015. To keep North American factories running at full steam and on pace for a record, auto makers have cranked up spending on rebates and discounts and relied more heavily on fleet customers, including rental-car companies, government agencies and commercial clients.
Industry competitors spent nearly $400 more on incentives per vehicle on average in September compared with a year earlier, and incentives of $3,888 per-unit sold on average topped the prior incentive-spending record for a single month set in December 2008, according to J.D. Power. The last time incentives-per-unit were this high, GM and Chrysler were appealing to Congress for bailouts and sales across the industry were sinking.
The industry is in better shape seven years later, particularly as buyers opt for heavier models that typically deliver bigger margins. The incentive-spending increase, however, wipes out the premium that auto makers are collecting as customers take advantage of low gasoline prices and shift toward pricier trucks and sport-utility vehicles.