January 22, 2013 11:03:20 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
For the first time since the Great Recession, new car sales topped 17 million in 2012.
For local car dealers, those numbers not only mean a banner year, but hope for the future.
Russell Street, the general manager for Columbus Nissan, said he is looking forward to the year to come.
"Overall, if we had our choice, we would sign up for 2013 just like we had in 2012. We would do a repeat," he said.
Street said the new car business has been slowing gaining ground over the last few years but sales figures still didn't compare to the years before the recession.
He said in 2007 and 2008, Columbus Nissan was selling 110-130 cars a month. Now, they're averaging selling 80-100 cars a month.
"It's not as high as it was in 2007 and 2008, but it is coming back," Street said. "The last year was good. It's better than '09 and we're on an up-tick."
Duane Aultman, the sales manager at Starkville Ford, is also optimistic.
"Everybody is doing a little better," Aultman said. "This month has started out pretty good. I'm very optimistic about the future of the car business."
Aultman attributes the sales increase to "pent-up buyers" who were apprehensive about making a major purchase in the midst of political and economic uncertainty.
"We're seeing buyers who haven't bought in years," he said. "Folks are just nervous. People are scared to spend money and then their taxes go up. They just want certainty in Washington. Once that settles down, once people have realized what their income is going to be, they'll buy
"We see it in this industry more than others. You're not buying a $100 piece of furniture or a new shirt. You're talking about a $30,000 to $50,000 vehicle."
Aultman said that car sales also depend on the current price of gas.
"When gas prices go up, car sales go down. It's human nature. It's how it works," he said.
Aultman said he and fellow salesmen watch the gas prices daily and track the prices along-side their day-to-day sales.
He said when gas prices are high, his company sells more small to mid-size cars. When gas prices are low, Aultman sees an upswing in pick-up truck sales.
"It comes in waves," he said. "Sometimes it's trucks, sometimes it's small cars."
However, even with the recent record in 2012 sales, Aultman agreed that the automobile market still has a long way to go.
"This industry is not what it was seven years ago," he said. "I think the biggest problem was the car industry went through the same thing the housing market went through.
"You had people looking at zero percent, they could trade in their car that was a couple years old with 30,000 miles and have a new car. But then they would be upside down. It's a vicious cycle.
"They see zero percent for 72 months, they don't look at the bottom line. Zero percent is a dangerous thing. You have to pay the car off for it to make sense."
Aultman said there used to be three new car dealerships in Starkville. Today, Starkville Ford is the only dealership in Oktibbeha County that sells new cars.
"It's good to be Ford, I'll tell you that," Aultman said.
Street said Nissan had a productive year as well.
"Some manufacturers can have a great years and some don't but Nissan had a great year and can expect another one," Street said. "You always have challenges in the car business but it was an average year. It was a good year."
Street was still cautious though when predicting the upcoming sales for 2013.
"I think where we've come from at the lows, everyone would take a repeat of 2012 if they could stay at that level. I don't think anyone thinks it's going to take a huge step in 2013 and grow by huge amounts.
Even so, Aultman is hopeful for a record-breaking year.
"The consumer is what drives this country and I have a good feeling they're fixing to start spending," he said. "If that happens, everybody wins."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.