Number of U.S. auto dealers rose in 2011-study

DETROIT Tue Feb 14, 2012 2:33pm EST

DETROIT Feb 14 (Reuters) - The number of U.S. auto dealerships rose in 2011 for the first time in 11 years, and the per-dealership sales average is expected to set a record high in 2012, dealer consultant Urban Science said on Tuesday.

Chrysler Group LLC added the most dealerships, adding 135 dealerships for its parent Fiat SpA and 50 dealerships selling the main Chrysler Group brands, Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler.

Without the addition of Fiat dealerships, the number of U.S. dealerships would have fallen last year.

John Frith, vice president at Detroit-based Urban Science, said the increase in dealerships by 0.6 percent to 17,767 is a sign that the major U.S. automakers have normalized operations after the 2008-2009 financial crisis and bankruptcies at General Motors Co and Chrysler.

"We have a stabilized, right-sized dealership network," said Frith. "Automakers and dealers are in a good, profitable position."

Frith said that the expected throughput, or number of cars sold, per dealership should rise to a record of 785 in 2012 -- up from 719 in 2011, 656 in 2010, and 564 in 2009, when U.S. auto sales fell to a 27-year low.

The 2012 forecast of 785 vehicles per dealership is based on a forecast for U.S. auto industry sales of 14 million by Paul Taylor, chief economist with the National Automobile Dealers Association, up from 12.8 million vehicles sold in 2011.

Fiat, which sold a single model in the United States, the compact Fiat 500, had throughput of only 146 cars per dealership, well below the industry average of 719 vehicles sold per dealership in 2011, Urban Science's study showed.

Dealers of Toyota Motor Corp's namesake cars and trucks saw the highest throughput in 2011, at an average 1,126 vehicles, followed by Ford Motor Co's Ford at 664 and GM's Chevrolet at 579, Urban Science said.

Laggards included GM's Buick franchises, which sold only 84 vehicles per dealer in 2011, and Ford's Lincoln at 87 vehicles per dealer. But while many Lincoln franchises are in standalone dealerships, most Buick franchises are paired with GMC truck franchises, which averaged sales of 226 per dealership, Urban Science found.

INTERNET LEADS

Many car buyers now start research on the Internet, and the number of sales leads from the Internet is forecast to rise to 85 per month per dealership in 2012 from 75 in 2011, said Jody Stidham, global practice director at Urban Science.

In 2010, leads from the Internet were 63 per dealer a month, she said.

Some 15 percent to 30 percent of auto sales made in 2011 were generated from Internet leads, Stidham said.

People who simply walk in to dealerships still account for about 30 percent of auto sales, she said.

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