Dent in consumer confidence hits annual Northern Ireland car sales total
New car sales in Northern Ireland decreased by 2% last year to 51,512 - with one economist predicting the figure could fall below 50,000 in 2020.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders ( SMMT) data showed that new car sales were down 1.9% during 2019, compared to 2018.
It's the third consecutive annual decrease in sales. However, last month sales showed robust growth of 21% to 2,055 vehicles, with the Citroen C3 the most popular seller during the month.
It was also number eight in the top 10 best-sellers of the year, with Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Golf, Ford Kuga, Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Qashqai, Ford Focus, Volkswagen Tiguan, Citroen C3, Ford Ecosport and the Volkswagen Polo.
Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said the monthly statistic is not representative of the overall picture in the market.
He said despite labour market conditions sitting at record highs for employment and unemployment, a sustained period of below-inflation wage growth has dented consumer confidence.
"Previously having a job, or not having one, was a key determinant of whether a household or individual was in poverty," he said.
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"Over the last decade, however, a sustained period of below inflation wage growth and cuts to working-age welfare benefits has squeezed disposable incomes for those in work too."
Mr Ramsey added that the figures "signal consumer stress or at least concern". And he pointed to other indications of falling consumer demand, including falls in retail sales activity.
A Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors survey had shown that demand for retail property in the third quarter of last year was the weakest since 2008.
Northern Ireland's drop in sales over the year was not far from the UK average of 2.4% - also the third consecutive annual fall for the whole of the UK.
But Mr Ramsey said that "unlike the UK, Northern Ireland new car sales never recovered from the last recession".
SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes commented: "A third year of decline for the UK new car market is a significant concern for industry and the wider economy.
"Political and economic uncertainty, and confusing messages on clean air zones have taken their toll on buyer confidence, with demand for new cars at a six-year low."
He called for supportive policies to encourage sales of more environmentally-friendly vehicles.
Sales across all car types saw demand fall UK-wide, with only dual purpose and specialist sports categories experiencing growth, according to the SMMT.
It also said that smaller vehicles remain the most popular in the sector, with a combined 57.1% share of sales.
Petrol engined cars saw sales increase by 2.2% UK-wide, with diesel vehicles experiencing a decline of 21.8%.
SMMT also said Alternatively Fuelled Vehicle registrations surged to take a record 7.4% market share last year while hybrid electric vehicles continued to dominate this sector, with registrations increasing by 17.1%.
Battery electric vehicle (BEV) registrations experienced the biggest percentage growth, rising by 144.0% and overtaking plug-in hybrids for the first time.