About an hour ago

After the mid-March economic shutdown to halt the spread of covid-19, Paul Schimizzi didn’t know what to expect when his auto dealership reopened in May.

“I didn’t know if we were going to sell 50 cars,” the president of Hillview Motors in Hempfield said.

Instead, the dealership sold substantially more than that, although he declined to share exact sales figures.

“Since we’ve come back, business has been very brisk,” Schimizzi said.

His dealership and others throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania are busy and say the biggest problems dealers have are keeping up their inventory. People might be using vacation money to buy a new car, or it could be demand that’s leftover from the shutdown, which closed down the businesses during normally busy months for sales, the dealers said.

“It’s just phenomenal. But there’s not enough merchandise,” said Len Kalmar of Kalmar Chevrolet in Gilpin. “We could sell more new cars if we could get more new cars.”

James Smail of Smail Auto Group in Hempfield agreed.

“It’s a little surprising, quite frankly,” Smail said.

Business also has been brisk at Rohrich Honda in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood.

“We’ve actually had a couple record months here, and the demand is high,” salesman Todd Perschke said. “We’ve been able to survive this quite nicely.”

Experiences of local dealers match the data from across the country, according to a report by National Automobile Dealers Association Chief Economist Patrick Manzi.

Sales remained down compared to 2019, however.

In April, sales were at their lowest point in three decades, according to NADA. Nationwide sales of 8.6 million vehicles that month were down nearly 50% compared to April 2019.

The seasonally adjusted annual rate of 13.05 million units sold in June represents a 7% increase over May, Manzi reported. But it marked a dip of 24% when compared to last June.

Sales for the first half of 2020 were down 23% over the same period in 2019, according to NADA.

Still, the volume of cars bought since the dealers were allowed to resume business have come close to making up for the time off, Schimizzi said.

People are buying new and used cars, the dealers said, and the only impediment to sales is having the right cars in stock.

“There’s a lot of demand out there,” Kalmar said.

The prices of used cars also have increased, according to Edmunds.com, a car shopping website.

Average listing prices for 2017 models reached $21,558 in July, up $708 compared to June. Edmunds experts attributed the increase to “unique market conditions” brought on by the pandemic.

“We’re seeing evidence of more typically new-car shoppers gravitating toward the used car market than usual during the pandemic due to a combination of factors: Consumers are being more financially responsible, interest rates and CPO (certified pre-owned) offers have been extremely favorable, and inventory has been severely limited on the new side,” Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ senior manager of insights, said in a statement. “Shoppers might be a bit surprised to find that prices are ratcheting up on used vehicles because of significantly increased demand.”

Back to work

All of Hillview’s 80 employees are back to work, although some sales staff and others who weren’t needed were laid off during the shutdown, Schimizzi said.

Smail, Kalmar and Chris King, an owner of Sendell Motors in Hempfield, also had to lay off some staff during the shutdown. Each since has called workers back. At Rohrich, the ownership was able to keep paying the staff during the shutdown, Perschke said.”

During the halt in sales, Smail said his business received a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to keep as many employees on as he could. Now, all 459 employees are back to work, he said.

“I think most dealers are certainly on the road to recovery,” Schimizzi said.

Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, tdavidson@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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