Not every driver is lucky enough to enjoy that new-car smell. In fact, in 1998 Americans bought somewhere between 40 and 45 million used cars, nearly three times the number of new cars sold - 15.6 million. But don't assume that the new and used car buyers are evenly distributed along Route 66 or that they fit neatly into a single socioeconomic demographic. We decided to take a virtual cross-country trip using a map created from data provided by research firm CACI Marketing Systems Group, based in Arlington, Virginia, as our guide in order to learn more about where used and new car buyers are going.
The map shows where residents index high and/or low for buying new and used cars. Designated Market Areas (DMAs) in red are more likely than the U.S. average to buy both used and new cars. Those in yellow are more likely to buy used cars, and less likely to buy new ones. The opposite trend is shown in brown, where residents tend to buy new, not used. Only two DMAs are unlikely to buy either type of car, shown in white.
At the first stop along the way, we notice that new car buyers are considerably more urban. According to a national survey conducted by AutoPacific, Inc., a market research firm with offices in Detroit and Los Angeles, 74 percent of new car buyers live in urban or suburban areas.
The Greenwood-Greenville DMA (1), located in non-metropolitan northwestern Alabama, holds the title for the lowest index for new-car purchases in the United States - 26 percent below the national average. A population dominated by farmers and industrial workers is a likely cause. Double-digit unemployment levels due to recent plant closings don't exactly free up extra cash for a new set of wheels either. Benny Long, business manager at Greenville Ford, tells us that new-car sales are down, but he hopes that a new, deluxe-blanket manufacturing plant scheduled to open this summer will boost sales.
Meanwhile, sales of new cars in a majority of the nation's most urban DMAs are strong. At a stopover in the Washington, D.C., DMA (2) we see that CACI has given the area an index of 113 for new-car purchases, meaning that the area's predominantly white-collar population is 13 percent more likely to buy new cars than the national average.
Conversely, rural DMAs rank high for used-car sales and low for sales of new cars. The farmers and empty nesters of rural Mankato, in southern Minnesota (3), confirm that. They buy used cars 24 percent more than average, the highest of any DMA.
Half a continent away we notice that residents of the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose DMA (4) much prefer the latest model over the days-old brand. The area's index for new cars is 115 - the third-highest nationally. Not coincidentally, residents there have the second-highest mean household income in the United States - $97,000 in 1999, according to Washington, D.C.-based market research firm Woods & Poole Economics, Inc. A high percentage (15.7 percent) of the area's residents fall into CACI's ACORN cluster group called "Wealthy Seaboard Suburbs," described as married, middle-aged professionals at the peak of their lifetime earnings. They also buy new cars 52 percent more than average. The healthy presence of another cluster group known as "High Rise Renters" (13.5 percent) keep used-car purchases low. This group buys used cars 32 percent less than average.
But not everybody has to choose between new and used, although a majority of areas rank high for one or the other. There are 29 DMAs that index high for both. A quick stop in Salt Lake City (5) provides an excellent opportunity to examine a dual high indexing DMA. Over 20 percent of the population here fits into the "Baby Boomers with Children" cluster group, according to CACI. Garages at these households are likely to be crowded with new cars for mom and dad and used ones for the teenage children.
That doesn't surprise Ed Chima, senior partner at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson in Detroit. In some areas, the used-car market is almost identical to the new-car market, Chima says.
Finally, we see that in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale DMA (6) indices for both used and new car sales are low. For used cars the area scores an 82 (18 percent below the national average) and an 87 for new car sales (13 percent below average). Why? CACI data shows that the dominance of new immigrant population groups pulls south Florida's overall index down despite the area's substantial wealth and excellent weather for convertibles. For example, 22.4 percent of Miami's population, according to CACI, are "Young Immigrant Families" who buy used and new cars at a rate of 54 and 66 percent, respectively, below the national average.
One last note before heading home: Car dealers racked up $153 billion in the sales of used cars in 1998, about half as much as they did from new-car sales - $317 billion, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. But dollar sales can be quite misleading. The average cost of a used car in 1998 was $12,500; nearly 53 percent lower than the average new-car sticker price of $23,600.