Why Do People Buy Pickup Trucks?

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A few weeks ago we showed that the demand for pickup trucks may not be all that related to gas prices. By looking at historical fuel pricing data and comparing it to sales data, we showed there’s little to no correlation between gas prices and sales. We also did some basic math to show that, for many consumers, the additional monthly cost of operating a pickup truck (when compared to a compact car) is affordable.

If our analysis is true – if truck sales really aren’t influenced by gasoline prices – the question becomes, why? Why do pickup trucks continue to sell despite their higher fuel costs?

Many people suppose that trucks sell regardless of gas prices because American’s need trucks. Trucks are used on construction sites, farms, ranches, mines and oil wells, as delivery vehicles, fire and rescue vehicles, police vehicles, and 100’s of other tasks. All of these uses require trucks, and regardless of any future fuel prices or emissions regulations, trucks will always be needed for these purposes.

Amazingly, however, these work trucks account for less than 40% of total demand for pickups. According to figures from Ford Motor Company (published in the June 1, 2009 issue of Automotive News), only 39% of the trucks sold in the US fall into the “work” category.

Percentage of consumers who use trucks for work, towing, or projecting an image.

Percentage of consumers who use trucks for work, towing, or for "projecting an image."

The remaining 61% of truck sales, according to Ford, fall into the categories of “personal use while towing” and “image.”

The “personal use while towing ” category of truck sales is substantial – 12% bigger than work truck use. The vast majority of these users are pulling recreational equipment – everything from a 27′ RV trailer to a single Jet Ski. With so many Americans owning boats, ATV’s, dirt bikes, campers, race cars, etc., it’s hard to imagine that this segment will disappear. So long as these items exist, trucks will be needed to transport them from place to place.

Still, there’s some argument as to the size of the trucks that are needed. While big campers and boats will always be pulled by big trucks, how many times do you see a half-ton pulling something that a compact pickup could easily handle? As gas prices increase, truck owners may respond by switching to smaller trucks and SUVs. Of course, having said that, our article about gas prices shows that the cost difference between a compact truck and a full-size truck isn’t that significant (at least in terms of fuel economy).

The “image” category represents 17% of all truck buyers – nearly 1 in 6 consumers. If we accept Ford’s figures as fact, what truck(s) are these “image” buyers choosing?

Logically, an image buyer would be interested in the coolest, biggest, fastest, “toughest” truck on the road. Because pickups are so much more expensive than cars (even a simple Ford Ranger is more expensive than quite a few sport coupes), it stands to reason that image buyers probably aren’t nearly as motivated by finances as the typical consumer. Based on our criteria above, image buyers are more likely to gravitate towards:

  • Premium packages (Limited, King Ranch, Denali)
  • Larger trucks (dual rear wheel trucks, lifted trucks, etc.)
  • Trucks with special features and or monikers (i.e. TRD, FX4, ZR71)
  • Trucks with above-average power

All of the trucks that are likely to appeal to “image” buyers (at least in our opinion) are relatively expensive. A dually XLT one-ton Ford diesel, for example, has a base MSRP of $45k. An F-450 King Ranch dually (perhaps the King of all “image” trucks) has an MSRP of $56,955. Anyone that can afford either one of these trucks probably isn’t going to be deterred by fuel prices.

If you accept the following:

  1. Work trucks will always be needed
  2. Consumers will always need tow vehicles
  3. Truck “image” buyers aren’t necessarily constrained by finances

then you have to acknowledge the truck market isn’t going away anytime soon.

Sound off – what do you think:

  • Will trucks disappear someday?
  • Will consumers buy smaller trucks if gas prices go up?
  • Will consumers get rid of their recreational toys so they no longer need a truck?

Filed Under: Auto News

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  1. Jeremy the CyberThug says:

    I think Image is a larger percentage than 17%.

  2. Mickey says:

    Question 1 = Maybe but not mine.
    Question 2 = Buy a smaller truck? Not in your life time.
    Question 3 = My truck and boat is almost paid off. When they are paid off why would I get rid of them? It would me maintenance and tires. No monthly payments = a full weekend of fishing. You have to have an escape from the stress of working and just at home too. Nothing more relaxing than going out on a boat and relax and let the waves ripple on. Like sleeping in a hammock.

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  4. TXTee says:

    People buy all sorts of things they don’t need, can’t afford or are harmful in some manner…..talk to anyone that buys illegal drugs. It has nothing to do with costs or needs….it’s all about wants. Yes, some people buy a truck for a practical reason. I thought my reason was practical but someone else may think I could have substituted. And I’ll agree with Mickey on why downgrade/get rid of current truck? Yes, in a dire circumstance I would. But how many people do you see that literally downgrade their lives? That’s why the country is riddled with bankruptcies and debt – WANTS and not sacrificing. Trucks aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and I want to know what compelling reason I’d have to ditch my Tundra.

  5. mk says:

    simple answer to all 3 questions: NO

  6. Stick says:

    For business owners, the government gives tax incentives to purchase a TRUCK rather than a more fuel-efficient car

  7. mk says:

    I could get by with an SUV and my trailer, but is easier to throw things in back of the truck without worrying about tieing stuff down on the trailer all the time since my trailer does not have sides. Besides, SUV’s nowadays with the V6 engines do get better mpg, say 25 vs. 17 with my tundra, but are darn near as much money (around 25K vs. 30K for my tundra). I figure for 5K difference, my truck for the convenience factor is much more user friendly. I’m still waiting for someone to build a 4wd truck that actually consistently gets 21-22 avg mpg with a V8 engine. Toyota or GM or whomever has the technology to do it, so why don’t they? I certainly can sacrifice say 60 hp and 60 lbs. of torque for a 5 mpg increase in gas mileage.

  8. Jeremy the Dark Dork says:

    We are on the cusps of being able to cost effectively do that but the technology is too new and too expensive.

    And for the record, I won’t sacrifice 60 hp or 60 torque for nothing. I am one of the guys who could use a widdle twuck for what I do. I owned a almost Pink Frontier then a little white RAV4 before this truck. I was having an identity crisis and sipping lattes while discusing my feelings was starting to sound good. I went out and found the biggest, baddest beast of a truck I could find and bought it. Did I need a truck, yes. Did I need a truck I could beat down punks in sports cars in…no…BUT DANG IS IT FUN. It did save me quite a few trips back and forth to the hardware store. I litle truck would take 2 loads to haul what I did in one so I guess I did use the extra abilities. I like my truck but I no longer need it for work or play. I have it now because it fits what I wanted. It seats 5 very confortably. It can haul stuff if needed. It is freakin fast. SOLD!

  9. Joe Hummel says:

    I just bought a 2010 Rock Warrior. We had a 2007 4X2 Tundra standard cab 5.7. We tow a 26′ travel trailer (once so far 🙂 ). We wanted a four seater to tow with. We traded in the 2007 for the 2010 4X4. Dad asked why 4X4 and I said because I wanted one. I love my truck. I don’t need my truck. We have a special relationship like that.

  10. Joe Hummel says:

    The 2010 is a double cab by the way.

  11. TXTee says:

    Yeah I have an SUV and it’s ok but nothing beats loading dogs in the bed of the truck and not having to worry about their germs or odors transferring into my space. Plus my Tundra costed less than my Highlander…..and they were purchased 4 years apart. So yes it’s worth it to me to have a truck.

  12. mk says:

    60 hp and torque less for a 5 mpg hwy. gain is worth it. The tundra would then be comparable and still slightly faster and more powerful than a 5.3L V8 chevy silverado. The new 4.6L V8 only gets 2 mpg increase and is darn near at that 60 less hp/torque, but still not the 5mpg getting 22 mpg hwy. I would like. Don’t tell me the technology is not there, it is, mfgs. just choose not to use it until forced to.

  13. Jeremy the Dark Dork says:

    Oh….the fuel mileage gain is worth it. My brain is just wired funny. I am sort of a Rat Fink kind of guy. If you don’t know the character, look it up. That is the inner me all the way.

  14. Jeremy the Dark Dork says:

    Lets put it this way. My father and I put free flowing exhaust and a cold air intake on my mothers prior minivan.

  15. Jeremy the Dark Dork says:

    We couldn’t find a place for the supercharger or nitrous.

  16. Jeremy the Dark Dork says:

    Finally, I said the technology is there, it is just not used enough to be cost effective. Once it is in production on enough vehicles it become cost effective to place it in the entire line. Until then the tech will remain in the high dollar units.

  17. Good comments all (as usual). The best part? It looks like the truck market recovery is beginning…which means Toyota might just put the diesel Tundra back on the operating table. Crossing my fingers!

  18. Mickey says:

    Maybe a hybrid also….I know that’s pushing it but we can hope for it.

  19. muther trucker says:

    i bout my truck to work in, my image is mud on the side of my quad cab!

  20. bigtex says:

    i bout a truck for work and to hual my horses, now i don’t know why women buy trucks. specialy when they cant park them properly. it must be their husbands. plus i live in texas its a must

  21. Anonymous says:

    I doubt half the people who say they tow actually tow things more than twice a year.

  22. […] successful can we hope to be when it comes to persuading “vanity” pickup drivers, which Ford estimates make up 17% of the truck driving population, to choose more efficient vehicles? Mark Hertsgaard of […]

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