By Nick Carey and Sanjana Shivdas
(Reuters) - Ford Motor Co's <F.N> U.S. sales chief said on Thursday the automaker believes some level of government stimulus will be needed for consumers once the coronavirus pandemic recedes and that the crisis will spur a permanent shift toward more online vehicle sales in America.
"It’s hard to determine how long and what the lingering effects of this will be," Mark LaNeve told Reuters after the company reported lower quarterly sales as a result of the pandemic. "But certainly we believe that some level of government stimulus post crisis to help customers and the auto industry to recover would be appropriate."
The No. 2 U.S. automaker posted a 12.5% fall in U.S. auto sales for the first quarter.
Government orders for businesses to shutter and consumers to remain at home in the face of the coronavirus pandemic stalled demand across the auto industry.
Economists say the stay-at-home measures have pushed the economy into recession. The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits last week shot to a record high of 6.65 million.
During the Great Recession, the U.S. government rolled out a "cash-for-clunkers" program, which offered consumers rebates of up to $4,500 to trade in older gas guzzlers.
Ford is currently "thinking over ideas" for government stimulus for consumers that it will discuss with its government affairs team, LaNeve said.
He said around 93% of Ford's 3,100 U.S. dealers are doing some or all aspects of sales online, from virtual tours to financing and home delivery, as the pandemic has shuttered showrooms in a growing number of states.
"Good dealers have been doing remote delivery for the last 20 years, but it was maybe one a week," he said. "Now they’re doing almost every delivery that way."
Ford is beefing up its existing online tools to support virtual sales through its dealers, and LaNeve said the coronavirus crisis will push more sales to the internet in the long term.
"This has just turbo charged the adoption of those processes by both customers and the dealers," LaNeve said. "To be honest, I think a big chunk of that stays with us even when we’re through the crisis."
Ford's passenger car sales fell 36%, while sports utility vehicle sales dropped 11% in the first quarter.
The company did not provide monthly sales figures, but estimated that industrywide U.S. new-vehicle sales fell 39% in March. LaNeve said Ford's sales decline was lower than that.
(Reporting by Sanjana Shivdas in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel and Steve Orlofsky)