After the epidemic went down early, U.S. car dealers benefited

The last time the National Automobile Dealers Association was able to personally hold its annual conference, the mood was much different. In a word, Grimer.

Just before the epidemic, despair spread among the country’s nearly 18,000 new-car dealers. The traditional sales model is under threat – for more than a century, one of the best generators of Native American prosperity.

There were also concerns about the relentless advancement of electric vehicles, their high price tags and declining demand for supposed services. Autonomous cars signal a decline in car ownership (and purchase) with the promise of their extended ride-hauling and car-sharing.

Then came the Covid-19 epidemic in March 2020 for a terrible final blow. When the year opened with rapid showroom traffic, the bottom line fell, with auto sales diving to an annual rate of 8.8 million that April, about half of the normal clip. Vendors were rushing to the exit door, looking to offload businesses that could suddenly be worth the price of their underlying real estate, if that happened.

But the epidemic shook the economy in large and small, predictable and highly irregular ways. The job disappeared, but came back fairly quickly. Online retail sales improved at a lightning speed. The supply chain has grown erratic and inflation has risen. And, for car dealers, the unexpected happened.

Quick recovery from sales. And as dealers gathered last month for the 105th edition of their annual conference in Las Vegas, they were overwhelmed, toasting at the cocktail party and jumping on the convention floor. Vendors, as any car dealer could need or dream of, were equipped with enough promotional glitter to fill several gymnasiums.

There was so much to celebrate. Instead of being hit by the epidemic, the profits of car manufacturers and dealers have similarly exploded and continue to rise. Although some brands have reported lower sales, transaction prices have risen sharply to offset lost volume, allowing many manufacturers to achieve record profits, sales or both. And, look and see, car dealers have enjoyed the best years of their history.

“This is a crazy time,” said Bruce Bendel, founder of Major World and City World Chain, which has eight dealerships in the Bronx and Queens.

Sheldon Sandler, a Wall Street accountant who became a car dealership sales broker, agreed. “Every dealer is making a handful of money today,” he said. “Vendors are making money with all brands, even second- or third-tier.”

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