KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Randy Shepherd figured it was time.
Shepherd, a residential contractor, bought two new Chevrolet Silverado pickups, one in December and the other in March. The construction season was about to kick off.
"We were busy last year, but things are really starting to pick up now," said Shepherd, owner of Shepherd Enterprises of Independence, Mo. "Last time we bought a truck was nine years ago, so we wanted to update our equipment."
Shepherd is not alone in his spending decisions. He and others buying pickups should be kept in mind as signs of an economic recovery start to surface.
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Housing starts were up nationwide in the first quarter compared with last year. But the actual number of new permits remains modest, given that 2009 was the worst year for new-home construction in the area in decades.
Nevertheless, the increased building activity has contractors buying more full-size pickups. Auto industry analysts say trends in the large pickup truck market get overlooked on the coasts but are a key gauge in the middle of the country.
Ford Motor Co., which leads the industry in pickup sales, has added overtime to its truck line at its plant near Kansas City.
March is a particularly telling month, according to experts.
This March, sales of large pickups in the U.S. jumped 25.9 percent, slightly outpacing the 24.4 percent in overall vehicle sales. The last time the full-size truck segment beat industrywide sales was in 2007, according to Edmunds.com.
"One always equates March truck sales to the housing
economy, and even the economy as a whole," said Ivan Drury, an analyst with Edmunds, a popular car-buying website. "It's kind of like the S&P 500 in that it's a really good indicator."
Drury expected April vehicle sales to post a seasonal drop compared with March sales. Still, Ford and GM said recently that April numbers were much better than in April 2009.
Sales for Chevrolet and GMC full-size pickups were up a combined 20 percent.
Ford's numbers were even stronger. Dealers nationwide sold 42 percent more Ford F-series trucks in April compared with the same month last year.
Neither dealers nor analysts are predicting that pickup sales are returning to the glory days of the 1990s through the mid-2000s. That was a period in which people began buying pickups as a fashion statement.
But the comeback in full-size trucks, however slow, has created optimism about the months and even years ahead.
"Most people don't understand that pickup trucks are a crucial part of our economy, as it relates to construction, agriculture and many other things," said Erich Merkle, president of Autoconomy.com, a Grand Rapids, Mich., consulting firm.
"If you have to have a pickup, there really isn't a substitute. I expect pickup trucks to do well over the next two to three years and outperform the overall (automotive) market."