Big or small, dealers are bouncing off the bottom

When the head of the nation’s largest automotive retailer talked about July sales yesterday on CNBC, his message hit home with a small-town dealership manager in Minnesota.

Bart Harmer, vice president of Tanner Auto in Brainerd and Baxter, Minn., helps run an operation on a much smaller scale than retail giant AutoNation. And northern Minnesota is far removed from greater Miami and the other big urban areas that are home to AutoNation’s stores.

But AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson’s message about a recovering auto industry -- “It’s not a rocket back, but it’s on the way and it’s steady” -- echoed what Harmer is seeing every day on the floor of Tanner’s Honda, Nissan and Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Mazda stores.

“It’s pretty enlightening to find out that California and Brainerd, Minn., are not that different,” Harmer told me. “People are people.”

And right now, those people are feeling more at ease about stepping back into the market. Many held out longer than usual and now must replace aging vehicles that have needed lots of service work. With used-car prices sky high, people with nice trades are getting top dollar, he said.

“I wouldn’t say our sales are remarkable, but we definitely are feeling the customer waiting too long,” Harmer said. “There is more need out there, and they’re feeling more comfortable in making car purchases.”

It has Harmer convinced the worst is behind us.

“We’re bouncing off the bottom,” he said.

On that, he and Mike Jackson are in agreement.

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