Forecasters suggest this could be the year of the dealer

A 21/2-hour parade of forecasters and economists never uttered the word "dealer" at a recent Society of Automotive Analysts conference. But what they described is a big year for auto retailers.

Things are indeed looking up for auto manufacturers. Sales are bouncing back. First-quarter production will jump 15 percent. Profitability is returning.

But listening to the conference forecasters suggested that conditions may be even better for dealers. Like automakers and suppliers, surviving dealers are lean and mean, earning a buck despite very low volume.

The things that dealers need are improving: credit availability, consumer demand, consumer confidence. Americans are paying down their debts, says William Strauss, chief economist at the Federal Reserve of Chicago. And the vehicles consumers are driving are getting older and older.

Dealers certainly are ready for some good news. Yes, U.S. auto sales rose 11 percent last year. But the first eight months, fleet sales carried the load and retail sales barely budged. Jeff Schuster, head auto forecaster for J.D. Power, sees 2011 U.S. sales rising another 1.2 million. But this year all that growth will be retail; and if fleet sales rise, that would be a bonus.

Many dealers say consumers just need to feel a bit better to take the plunge and buy a new ride.

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