Md. new-car dealers driving out of slump

April 21, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

Nobody is talking about being on easy street, but there are signs that Maryland's beleaguered auto sales industry has turned onto the road to recovery.

"This is the first time we've had three consecutive months of sales gains in three years," said Gerald J. Stautberg, referring to sales at his dealerships, Jerry's Chevrolet in Parkville and two other auto outlets. "I'm not saying they were significant gains, but we're selling more vehicles and that's encouraging."

Mr. Stautberg is not the only dealer who seems to be busting out of a three-year sales slump that has forced about 10 percent of the state's 335 new-car dealerships out of business. According to figures released by the state Motor Vehicle Administration yesterday, new-car dealers posted a 10.9 percent increase in vehicle sales last month compared with March 1992.

More important, dealers said, it looks as if the industry is entering a long-sought pattern of sustained growth. Based on the MVA's registration figures, which reflect dealers' sales, March was the fourth consecutive month of increased sales over the same period a year earlier.

Last month's gain was on top of a hefty 20 percent sales jump in February. Sales were up 2.1 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively, in January and December.

In explanation of a sales trend that serves as a measure of the state's economic health, Michael A. Conte, director of regional economic studies at the University of Baltimore, said that consumers "are confused about the economy, but people buy on the prospects of their own employment. We seem to be past the point where everyone is walking around in dread and fear of losing their jobs."

"It's not a boom by any means," said Alan Abramson, head of Archway Ford in northwest Baltimore, but business is creeping up. "What's encouraging is that we are seeing some predictability returning to the market. We're seeing a steady stream of business every day. It's not like in the past, when we would be busy one day and have to wait a week for another good day."

Robert B. Suddith, owner of three dealerships in the Hagerstown area, said he is more optimistic now than at any time since the mid-1980s.

"I think we have weathered the difficult economic storm and there

are blue skies ahead." Mr. Suddith is owner of the Hoffman outlets that sell the Chevrolet, Jeep, Eagle, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Chrysler and Plymouth lines.

The MVA reported that consumers drove home in 24,782 new cars and trucks last month, compared with 22,352 in the same month last year.

Used-car sales declined 4.2 percent, another sign that consumers are moving away from less-expensive used models and are more willing to commit themselves to three-, four- and five-year new-car loans. The average price of used cars sold last month was $4,473, vs. $16,747 for a new model.

Maryland dealers said their gains were being fueled, in part, by strong sales of pickups, vans, four-wheel-drive utility vehicles and the new line of Chrysler LH cars. Chrysler sales nationwide were up 29.5 percent last month, according to Automotive News, a trade publication.

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