REGION — Car dealerships have plenty of open pavement on their lots these days and Oxford Hills is no exception. The impact of tariffs and then the coronavirus resulted in disrupted markets and shortages of commodities and manufactured goods.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the new vehicle business. Mid-summer is normally a busy time for dealers as they shuffle out inventory to make way for the new year’s round of vehicles.

But for more than a year normal delivery of new cars has vaporized, most notably due to shortages of computer chips. Almost all chips used in car manufacturing are produced overseas. Taiwan Semiconductor Co. produces the majority of chips, not just for vehicles but also for products like electronics devices, medical equipment and video games.

The sight of bare lots is so unsettling that Hank Richards, sales manager for Ripley & Fletcher, said some customers have been worried for them.

“We’ve getting a lot of calls,” Richards said. “Back before Joe (Galetta) bought the shop, it was pretty scarce on the lot. This has reminded people of that time and we’ve gotten some calls asking if everything is okay. It’s the chip shortage, and some commodities as well, that is the problem.”

But during these days of upside down pandemic life, car dealers are not struggling. They are doing well, even if delivery of new vehicles is a never-ending question.

After businesses were allowed to re-open in 2020 as “curbside,” sales barely suffered. Manufacturers had increased incentives, which helped. Having the doors closed while the store was still open did not deter buyers.

Late model pre-owned vehicles are most of what can be found at local dealerships, like this 2020 Ram at Bessey Motors in South Paris. The dealer lot is largely bare these days.

“The incentives at the start of the pandemic were better than usual and people were still buying,” said Bessey Motors General Sales Manager Travis Bennett. “Now they don’t have those because new vehicles are so scarce. Business is good. No complaints, it’s just a lack of new inventory.”

“If I had a regular inventory right now? In 2020 with COVID, we had a record year,” said Richards. “And we are on pace this year to beat last year, but for the inventory.

Manufacturers have had to adjust their distribution by managing material shortages, rationing orders and focusing on the products that sell the best.

“(Parent company) Stellantis has stopped production on the Renegade, Cherokee and Compass,” explained Bennett, of Chrysler’s strategy. “The smaller Jeeps have stopped until fall so they can get the Wranglers, Grand Cherokees and Gladiators out and work on the new models. There is the Grand Cherokee L, which has a third row, and the Grand Wagoneer which will be the biggest SUV we put out.

“They don’t build sedans any longer. The only thing we would sell is the Chrysler 300 and the Challenger/Charger series. Those are the only passenger cars left, and up here in Maine there isn’t that much interest in them.”

Ford ceased production of the F-150 with diesel option. It had already discontinued manufacturing the Focus, Fusion and Fiesta, leaving the Mustang as the only passenger car in its stable.

“But throughout the winter we sold a lot of Mustangs,” said Richards.

Car factory shutdowns began last year, with a 90-day period starting in May. It was then that American manufacturers adjusted their chip orders downward. There were continuous shutdowns that followed.

“It might be 14 days of a time if one place had an outbreak, things like that,” Bennett said. “Now they’re at three shifts around the clock, trying to make up for the lost time.”

“Right we have 65 2021 models, including what’s on the lot, what is in the plant and what is in transit,” Richards explained. “Of those vehicles coming in, 16 are pre-sold.

“And that doesn’t include customer orders. I have 19 F-150 orders and almost as many Super Duty trucks. I have between 40-50 sold units that I can’t get a hold of. It’s a trickle.”

There is lots of spare pavement at Ripley & Fletcher in South Paris. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

With few or no new vehicles to choose from and demand for used cars climbing, the situation has brought new problems and higher prices for customers.

“The chip shortage drove up demand for used cars through the roof,” Bennett said. Used is hard to get because everyone wants top dollar for them and it’s hard to get people to trade out of theirs for new because a lot of what people want is not on the lot.

“Auction sales went through the roof starting around last December, January. We started noticing that cars had more and more value. Now it’s kind of leveled off. We normally have 30 to 40 used on the lot and as of today we’re right there at 38.”

“Trade-ins are more valuable now,” said Richards. “One of our customers ordered a Super Duty four months ago and the order has yet to be picked up to be built even. His trade-in was valued around 34 to 35 grand. Here we are four months later, and his trade-in is now worth $38,000.”

Many customers are still buying new, ordering now for delivery later. Bennett reported that Bessey Motors has 30 recently entered into its system.

“People can buy exactly what they want,” he said. “They pick out their options and color and then Stellantis builds it. It shows up, although we can’t guarantee the time. We tell customers it’s 12-16 weeks to wait. It could be longer or shorter, depending on what they want. Chips are still an issue. Some of our new vehicles will take 20, others take 200.

“Chrysler started shipping vehicles with only one key fob to save the extra chip for a while. They just aren’t coming fast enough” to meet order demand.

“Ford will start shipping us vehicles that are 99 percent done, outside of the chip. We’ll install them here,” said Richards. “So the trucks will come here and they’ll be inoperable. We’ll have to push them around. In Florida you might have to deal with the heat. But here, in the middle of the snowstorm when we have to plow the lot, that will be interesting. Things are starting to come around, but it will be a while.”

Bennett has changed how he orders new vehicles for dealer inventory, focusing on colors and vehicles that are more popular.

“We’re ordering more neutral colors, like black, white and gray,” he said. “No one really doesn’t like them, but maybe someone wouldn’t choose those colors first. It’s the off the wall colors like yellow or green that I’m not ordering right now. Those colors aren’t for everyone, but customers can order them.”

Asked what his advice would be for those who are considering a new car, Richards offered this:

“Make sure that when you’re going to buy a car, do it when you don’t have a need. Prepare yourself to wait. When you have to buy something, that’s when you get what you get. If you have to buy something, do it online.

“Online buying is our biggest pain and our biggest friend,” he added. It has driven more people to us that don’t live around Oxford Hills. But our customers in Oxford Hills can look further. Sometimes we just cannot provide exactly what our customer wants.”

At Bessey, Bennett maintains the only real issue is lack of inventory and it has not led to a decline in sales. There are fewer shoppers but more serious buyers coming in.

“We still sign purchase orders for new,” he said, “People do have to be patient but they will get what they want. The best trend is that we’re getting back to normal and that customers are back in the showroom.”

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