It’s no secret that procuring fleet vehicles has been the biggest challenge facing the rental industry since the Great Recession or 9/11, when operators were faced with collecting hundreds of stranded rental cars. No, let’s face it — this is much worse.
If you get rental operators around a table for a beer, the anecdotes will flow on how they’re getting by these days in creative ways with vastly fewer fleet vehicles. But what does the data say?
The data affirms the stories.
According to data collected by Bobit Business Media, the U.S. car rental industry fleeted 726,056 new units in 2021. (Bobit does not calculate used fleet sales or collect sales figures for the luxury or exotic brands.) That’s only a 9% drop over 2020 — noting that 2020 was one of the most disruptive in history with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Looking further back tells the real story. In 2019, the industry fleeted 1,738,993 vehicles. (That isn’t a high-water mark, as in 2017 the industry fleeted 1.82 million units.) Comparing 2021 to 2019, society’s last normal year, sales plummeted an astonishing 58%.
A look at monthly fleet sales tells a more detailed story. Normally, rental companies fleet up in the late-winter, early-spring period in anticipation of the busy early summer rental season. February and March are the highest sales months.
The first quarter or 2020 followed a usual sales pattern, as the pandemic hit in full force at the end of the quarter. For the rest of the year, sales were down from 70% to 88% through September. In the second and third quarters of 2020, the industry only fleeted about 180,000 vehicles, when more than 750,000 is the norm. Sales made incremental gains year over year in the fourth quarter.
In the first quarter of 2021, sales still lagged normal patterns but were down by much smaller percentages. Then the semiconductor chip shortage took effect — and sales steadily eroded. Sales were only 94,000 units in the fourth quarter of 2021, when a normal pattern would be over 800,000 units in that quarter.
Looking back, the nadir of the pandemic in 2020 actually affected sales to a lesser extent than the supply chain issues seen in 2021. It’s looking like rental fleet sales will stay depressed through most of 2022. But will sales at least start to approach a normal pattern? We’ll have to wait and see.