After pandemic roller coaster, auto sales across north country surge in March

·6 min read

May 11—Réal "Frenchie" Coupal has seen it all during his nearly 40 years of owning auto dealerships.

But it's been like a roller coaster ride to get through the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, he said.

Last March, the industry was shut down when the virus hit.

Fast forward to this March: new auto sales went through the roof.

Charles G. Caprara, who owns F.X. Caprara Car Companies with his brother, William F. Caprara, said March was the best month he's ever had in his 47 years in the industry.

"All our brands were strong," he said.

The Caprara family currently operates F.X. Caprara Honda of Watertown, F.X. Caprara Kia of Watertown, F.X. Caprara Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Alexandria Bay, F.X. Caprara of Ogdensburg and F.X. Caprara Harley-Davidson in Adams Center.

After seeing a 10% decrease in sales from January to March last year, Lewis County dealerships saw increases during those three months this year, a 5% increase in February, a whopping 91% jump in March and 10% through the end of April.

Lewis County Clerk Jake Moser accounts stimulus checks for the surge in new vehicle registrations. Potential car buyers received at least $1,200 and then $500 payments for each child, allowing them to make that purchase they might have held off or not made at all, he said.

Mr. Coupal, who owns Frenchie's Chevrolet, Frenchie's Ford Inc. and Frenchie's Selects used cars in Massena, recalled last March when traffic into his dealerships stopped because the state shut down the industry.

He had a large inventory of vehicles on his lots and no one coming through the door.

It's becoming the opposite, he said.

"A lot of people coming through the door and no vehicles on the lot," he said.

Dealerships across the country don't have as many vehicles on their lots as they normally do, thanks to a worldwide shortage of a car part called the semiconductor chip.

Semiconductors, or microchips, are the electronic brains in automobiles, which contains dozens of integrated circuits, controlling air bags, power windows, catalytic converters and dashboard displays.

Timothy O. Nortz, a third-generation owner of Nortz & Virkler Inc., said COVID is to blame for the shortage. Last Sunday, he had the television on when he purposely stopped what he was doing to watch 60 Minutes because the CBS news program had a report about semiconductors, so he wanted to learn as much as he could about the shortage affecting his Lowville auto dealership.

Like other dealerships, his inventory is down because of the shortage, he said. When COVID hit in March 2020, car manufacturers stopped orders on the microchips because they stopped making vehicles during the pandemic.

It was simple supply and demand, local dealers said.

"This is almost as bad as 2008," Mr. Coupal said, referring to the automotive crisis caused by the Great Recession when the auto makers were hit by increased costs for materials and had double-digit sales decreases.

When sales started to pick up again earlier than expected, there wasn't enough time to get production of semiconductors going again, causing a lag in production and the shortage of vehicles now, dealers said.

"Microchips are the biggest reason," Mr. Nortz said.

The situation is coming this spring, normally a busy time for auto dealerships, he said.

Currently, his dealership has about 100 vehicles on the lot. Normally, it would be double that amount. Frenchie's has about a dozen new cars and 30 used cars on Mr. Coupal's lots when he would usually have 140 units. Back in December, he ordered 50 vehicles but they haven't been delivered yet while they just sit and wait with the manufacturer.

Most years, a buyer can pick out the color of the vehicle and the features that they want on it. Not this year, Mr. Nortz said.

"If you want a yellow or green car, you may have to take a red one," he said.

It's gotten so bad for car buyers that Mr. Coupal said one of his friends traveled down to South Carolina to pick up a car he wanted.

Mr. Coupal also feels badly for those dealers who just opened a dealership or just bought a dealership. They're in worse shape, he said.

"I'm an old squirrel that can find some acorns," he said about his chance to get through the current situation.

So far, the price of a vehicle hasn't increased for the customer, but manufacturers aren't offering as many incentives as they had done in the past, Mr. Nortz said. But buyers are getting more money for their trade-ins.

With the lag time to manufacture semiconductors, it will probably be about six months or until fall when inventories are back to normal, Mr. Caprara said.

His dealerships are not in bad shape for inventory, Mr. Caprara said. A while back, he ordered what he could to keep his lots full.

But COVID taught him a lot about the future of dealerships and how the vehicles will be sold.

During the pandemic, Ford decided that buyers must pre-order all Ford Broncos and Mustangs online by putting a $200 deposit on a vehicle. That means a customer could not go to a dealer and pick out something on the lot, Mr. Caprara said.

Tesla uses that strategy now.

He envisions the day in which that's how sales are done. A customer will order a vehicle online and then go pick it up when it comes in at dealership.

"You won't see anyone at the dealership until you pick it up," he said.

It would be more profitable for dealerships to sell that way, Mr. Caprara said. They would no longer have lots of inventory waiting to be sold while dealerships continue to pay interest on them, he explained.

The dealership landscape also is changing. A lot of dealerships are getting sold. Bigger companies are buying up dealerships. In September, a Rochester car dealership, The Bob Johnson Auto Group, entered the Watertown market when it bought out the company that ran F.X. Caprara dealerships in the north country for the past few years.

The Bob Johnson Auto Group — which boasts it has the "Number One Chevy Dealership in the Nation" — purchased the F.X. Caprara Volkswagen and Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealerships in Watertown and the F.X. Caprara Chevrolet Buick and Ford dealerships in Pulaski.

The company recently demolished two older buildings and is now constructing a new 30,000-square-foot building that will house the Chrysler and Jeep dealerships on Route 11.

In 2018, the Caprara brothers sold those four dealerships in a complicated deal to Prime Auto Group. But then the Prime Auto Group ended up having financial and legal difficulties, so that company sold to Bob Johnson. In January, the Caprara brothers also purchased the Parkway Ford in Ogdensburg, its first foray in St. Lawrence County.

There might be other changes locally, as well.

Billy Fuccillo — who is known for his brash style from his "HUUUUUGA" slogan in his commercials — sold a Kia dealership in Florida that was known as the top-selling in the nation for that brand. He has also reportedly sold Kia and Hyundai dealerships in the Rochester area, as well as three dealerships in Syracuse. Mr. Fuccillo continues to own his first dealership that he opened in Adams in 1989 and another dealership in the town of Watertown.