Think the economy has been tough on Detroit's Big Three automakers?
It's been murder on new car sales, the most locally visible facet of the auto industry.
Some dealers said September and October sales dipped as much as 40 percent, to their lowest levels in 17 years.
"It is a very tough environment," said Andy Scott, president of the Scott family of dealerships. "It's impacted all of us. There is nobody who is immune. Whether you are a GM dealer or a Lexis dealer, you're suffering right now."
The uncertainty surrounding the future of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford hasn't helped, said Brian Gault, general manager of Brown-Daub Chevrolet-Volvo.
To cope, dealers of all stripes have lowered prices, ordered fewer new cars, held on to trade-ins to add to their used car offerings, trimmed staff and pushed regular maintenance to increase service department receipts.
The National Auto Dealers Association is promoting winter as the best time to buy a car, and backing federal legislation that would provide a temporary tax credit to new car and truck buyers.
But there is virtually no way to quickly reverse the first serious dip in auto sales since the early 1990s, said James Rubenstein, a Miami University of Ohio professor and author of the book , "Making and Selling Cars."
"We have an industry that would need to sell at least 15 million vehicles a year for most dealers to get back on an even keel and we just don't see that as a realistic possibility," said Rubenstein, a consultant to the Chicago Federal Reserve Board. "What will have to happen is fewer and larger dealers."
The seasonally adjusted annual auto sales ratefor October was 10.6 million vehicles, compared with 16 million a year ago.
The decline stems from the credit crunch, Rubenstein said. When credit dried up this fall, banks hiked loan requirements and it got much more difficult to get financing to buy a new car.
Most dealers can still get financing for buyers with good ratings, said John Devlin, Pennsylvania Automobile Association president. But even consumers who can get credit are too worried about the future to take on a car payment, he said.
"At the very least, we need to get some confidence and good news back in the market," Devlin said. "I think a lot of this is fear-driven right now."
Dealerships are trying to keep their heads above water while hoping for a six-month turnaround and bracing for a longer haul.
"All dealers are going back into survival mode now, doing what they can to get their expense structure down," said Brown-Daub's Gault.
That has already meant some layoffs, as much as 10 percent of the work force at some dealers. Next year could mean more job losses, unless the economy picks up. More than 1,000 dealers closed their doors in September alone, according to the Auto Alliance, which represents major auto manufacturers.
That's been a trend over the last few years in Pennsylvania, according to the state automotive association. The state has about half as many dealers today as in 1970.
Still, Pennsylvania is seen by industry experts as "over-dealered."
SURVIVING THE ECONOMY