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Alle-Kiski car dealers ready for thaw

| Saturday, March 8, 2014, 1:01 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Jim Pisano, left, looks over the new Ford Escapes with Internet sales manager Bill Shultz on the lot at Shults Ford in Harmar on Friday, March 7, 2014.

After a long, harsh winter, auto dealerships in the Alle-Kiski Valley are hoping the spring thaw will bring more customers out of hibernation and into showrooms.

“People are finally shaking off the winter,” said Scott Fultz, new car sales manager for Richard Bazzy's Shults Ford in Harmar.

Many local dealers saw weak winter sales as the bitter cold kept people inside.

Even so, Fultz said signs look good heading into spring.

“After the winter we had, plus the Pittsburgh Auto Show, there's a lot of pent-up demand,” Fultz said.

“It's trending better than last year.”

Overall, sales have been slower than expected in 2014. Automakers started the year expecting to sell more than 16 million cars and trucks for the year — the first time since the recession. So far, sales are on pace to reach about 15 million, about 600,000 below last year.

On Monday, General Motors, Ford and Toyota reported U.S. sales declines for February, but numbers started to inch up in the second half of the month.

At the local level, Keddie Chevrolet in Vandergrift echoed that trend.

“Winter was hard, cold and rough. It was a challenge,” Mike Keddie said. “But it started changing at the end of February. The sun brings folks out.

“It better than normal this time of year because there's pent-up demand from folks who had to stay in,” he said. “I would say the manufacturers of new vehicles also seem to be more aggressive this year, so the incentives will be greater.”

Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, believes sales will recover to reach 16.3 million in 2014.

“We think there is still plenty of time left this year for sales to rebound and kind of get us back on that pace,” Gutierrez said.

Consulting firm IHS Automotive also is tracking 16 million in sales for the full year.

“We do think any weather-related softness for sales will be made up in the second quarter,” said Chris Hopson, manager, North American vehicle sales forecasts.

“Soft sales are causing are little pockets of inventory to build, which coincides with the usual spring selling season. Dealers will be happy to move the inventory out,” Hopson said. “I think we'll see a nice bounce back.

“Underpinning that is consumer confidence, low interest rates and a stock of older vehicles that need to be replaced.”

Rob Cochran, president and CEO of #1 Cochran, noted that factories are “aggressively discounting in order to move stockpiled inventories.”

“We've got great momentum going into the spring selling season and expect sales to be very strong,” said Cochran, who has a dealership in Harrison that sells Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, Jeep and Ford.

John Putzier, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association in O'Hara, said sales have been flat in 2014. But, then, few retailers have escaped the “doom-and-gloom weather,” he said.

“Sales have flattened, but it's not a nose dive,” Putzier said. “In Western Pennsylvania, we don't see the peaks, dips and spikes many other regions do. It's the same thing with the real estate market here.

“That means the booms and dips are smaller, but it also means we're more stable.”

Putzier expects a jump in sales following January's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“The auto show always results in a bump in sales to the dealers,” Putzier said.

“I think there's time this year to reach the 16 million nationwide they're forecasting, which would put us back to where we were before the recession,” Putzier said. “It's always hard to say what will happen in D.C., or the Ukraine. But I think there's a cautious optimism out there.”

The Associated Press contributed. Stephanie Ritenbaugh is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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