Only 40 Percent Of Leaf Orders Become Purchases

By John O'Dell February 14, 2011

Leaf orders to sales dropping.jpg

As it turns out, reservations for the Nissan Leaf electric car are turning out to be less than headlines claimed. Nissan made headlines with the reception its Leaf EV received in the U.S. when it opened up its advance reservation line for the electric car last year – 20,000 in a matter of months. But while that figure has been used by the media – Edmunds.com included – as an indication of  how many Leafs Nissan is moving in its first wave of sales, the real number is far less. Only about 40 percent of the people who plunked down a refundable $99 deposit to reserve a space in the Leaf queue are actually following up and placing orders with their local Nissan dealers.

That's not bad – industry watchers says that a 40 percent fulfillment rate is about right when there is no penalty for canceling a reservation – but it means Nissan is likely to sell fewer than 10,000 Leafs in the first wave of U.S. sales. Sales in the initial launch were limited to just a handful of states, including California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Tennessee, which had actively been installing EV charging networks and had a high concentration of electric vehicle advocates.

"It's not a really high follow-through, but it's not a bad number," Edmunds.com industry analyst Jessica Caldwell said of the 40 percent "take rate."

Many early adopters reserved a Leaf and went to their Chevrolet dealership and ordered a Volt and took whichever car came in first, she said, noting that GM has been delivering Volt extended-range plug-in hybrids at a much faster clip than Nissan's been delivering Leaf EVs. Caldwell said that a lot of Leaf reservations likely were made by people who got on the list "just to be sure" and then did all the research and decided that an electric car just wouldn't fit their lifestyles.

"It's about what I expected," said Ed Kim, director of industry analysis at global automotive market research firm AutoPacific. "We thought there would be a significant number of drop outs because they took the Volt instead."

A spokesman for General Motors said that very few Volt orders have been canceled, but the company didn't take advance reservations, as did Nissan. Volt customers had to go to a Chevrolet dealership and place an order which, while non-binding, still required more commitment than Nissan's process - simply whipping out a credit card and going on line to give the company a refundable $99 deposit.

Nissan, which says it has more than 215,000 U.S. "hand raisers" who have told the company they are interested in a Leaf, froze the on-line reservation process late last year at just 20,000 to help ensure production quality and to keep customer waiting time as short as possible.

When smart USA began taking advance reservations for the its two-seat city car in the summer of 2007, it didn't cap them and while the initial take rate was much higher than 40 percent, conversion of reservations to sales dropped off as delivery times got longer and longer. At one point, smart was telling people who were pretty far down the reservation list that it would be 18 months before their car would arrive.

Nissan executives say that they are not disappointed in the Leaf's initial sales pace – that they never expected all 20,000 reservations to lead to deals. "That was never our goal," said Nissan North America spokesman Tim Gallagher. The 40-percent conversion from making a reservation to placing an order with a dealer is for the first few Leafs that have been delivered and is likely to change as sales progress and go nationwide. Production and distribution of the Leaf is a "dynamic" process, Gallagher said.

A slow production and inspection pace at the factory in Japan has meant that fewer than 125 Leafs were delivered to U.S. buyers in December and January, the first two months of actual sales. In contrast, GM delivered 650 Volts in the same two months. Nissan's North American sales and marketing chief, Brian Carolin, has said that the company intends to deliver all ordered cars by the end of summer, and dealers say they are expecting shipments to step up considerably in April. Nissan also will reopen its reservation process later this year – the date still hasn't been set – and expects a slower but more highly committed response in that the second wave.

On the plus side, customers aren't walking away from the Leafs they ordered – the drop outs that have occurred when it came time to place an order, not to pick up a car, Gallagher said. "I only know of two occasions where that has happened," he said of deals canceled once a car arrived at a dealership.

And if it does happen, most Nissan dealers have waiting lists of people who were frozen out when the reservation system was shut down. "We've got about 50 people who've called and said that if we ever get an orphan they want it," said electric vehicle activist Paul Scott, who sells Leafs at Santa Monica Nissan.

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