Waitlists are the latest way automakers want to be like Tesla

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Mr. Plein put down a refundable deposit last May for a place on the waiting list to purchase Ford Motor Co.’s new electric pickup truck, the F-150 Lightning, which will begin distribution this spring. Late last year, he made a separate reservation to buy an electric pickup truck from startup Rivian Automotive Inc.

“As soon as one of them says, ‘Your truck is ready,’ I’ll make a decision,” said Mr. Plein, a 57-year-old sales engineer who lives near Austin, Texas. He said he didn’t. expect to get its truck until the end of 2023, and could opt for the Rivian if it’s available sooner.

Automakers are increasingly deploying reservation systems for their most popular new models, a tactic popularized over the past decade by Tesla Inc.

Auto executives say waiting lists can give them a rough idea of ​​consumer interest in new entry, which they say is particularly important for electric cars, given the uncertainty surrounding Americans’ appetite for electric vehicles. For consumers, an online reservation offers an easier way than calling a local retailer to secure a place in the queue.

Automakers are also using their reservation tallies to signal to Wall Street that there is a strong appetite for future electric vehicles, executives say.

Things don’t always go smoothly, however, say dealers and potential buyers. Some customers complain of having difficulty getting status updates through the dealer or manufacturer.

Some dealers say they have mixed feelings about the process. While each reservation is a potential new sale, it also forces them to manage customer frustration as reservation holders wait, often for more than a year, dealers say.

“We’re the ones getting the brunt of the complaints,” said Deuce Waikem, general manager of a group of dealerships near Canton, Ohio, that sells Ford, Honda and other brands.

The use of reservations is another relatively new wrinkle in a car buying environment that has been muddled over the past couple of years. A shortage of semiconductors and other supply chain pitfalls have squeezed new car inventories, pushed up prices and driven more of the online shopping process.

Traditional automakers were already turning to deposit-based bookings before the market upheaval, trying to emulate the buzz Tesla generated for its car launches. After Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk unveiled the Model 3 sedan at a raucous reveal party in 2016, more than 500,000 reservations eventually poured in, with refundable deposits of up to $1,000, the company said. society.

Typically, potential buyers submit a deposit, which is often refundable, through a website set up by the automaker. Traditional automakers, which use dealerships, require buyers to select a dealership as their point of contact and delivery location.

Ford said in December it stopped taking reservations for the Lightning after the list reached 200,000 trucks due to manufacturing constraints. Ford executives said strong interest in the pickup contributed to the decision to nearly double production from previous plans.

Ford Chief Executive Jim Farley says opening reservations at an on-stage unveiling has become the company’s primary way of building buzz and gauging consumer interest in a future model. . Ford unveiled the Lightning at a party near its headquarters last May.

“Our new Detroit auto show is our reveal because it starts the countdown to reservations,” he told analysts in October, likening it to a Super Bowl ad.

General Motors Co. said it received 130,000 reservations for the electric version of its Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, which was unveiled in early January and is expected to go on sale next year. A spokeswoman said the company uses this data, along with input from dealers and commercial customers, to plan the model mix and production numbers.

Honda Motor Co.’s Acura brand recently began taking reservations for a new version of the MDX crossover SUV as well as the sporty Integra sedan. Jay Joseph, Honda’s U.S. vice president of marketing and customer experience, said the waitlist is meant to give customers peace of mind that their place for a high-demand model is secure.

“This filing puts someone on the front line above some other relationships the dealership might have,” he said.

It’s common for EV buyers to make reservations for more than one model in hopes of getting one sooner. That makes reservations an imprecise indicator of consumer interest, analysts said.

Startup EV maker Fisker Inc. has tried to curb this practice by charging a fee to people who opt out after putting down the $250 deposit for its upcoming Ocean SUV. Chief executive Henrik Fisker said he believed 31,000 ocean bookings reflected demand.

“It was born out of consumer demand, and of course for investors on Wall Street, it gives them an idea of ​​whether or not people like your vehicle,” he said.

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