When attendees at last year's NADA Show arrived home from Las Vegas, they were widely optimistic about the year ahead. A few weeks later, that optimism turned to fear as the coronavirus picked up steam and showroom traffic dwindled.
While people were aware of the virus during last year's show, who dreamed it would lead to a raging yearlong pandemic?
Cox Automotive Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke even referenced the virus as a "wild card" factor during the show as he pegged the chance of a recession in 2020 at 25 percent.
"Unless you're a really paranoid person, it's not likely to happen," Smoke said.
Here we are a year later, and dealers have run the gantlet — and come out strong. Through the pandemic, the dealership model has proved resilient time and again.
No doubt the billions of dollars of federal money — Paycheck Protection Program funds — that dealers eagerly sought last spring helped. Retail demand rebounded as government restrictions eased and dealers implemented both safety protocols at stores and new ways to deliver vehicles remotely.
Dealerships emerged from the early months of the pandemic more efficient and productive. With new and still-evolving digital retailing capabilities. With pricing power and soaring vehicle margins. With profit levels not seen before.
And they helped their communities throughout, holding food drives, delivering loaner vehicles to front-line workers, expanding mental health and suicide-prevention programs. While no surprise to those of us who know dealers, the outreach is to be applauded.
We enter 2021 with dealers' outlook high. After many earned record profits during a pandemic, more than half who answered a recent Automotive News survey expect to make even more money this year. The auto retail business, indeed, seems robust.
But a note of caution: This pandemic is not over.
A proof point? We're all meeting virtually this week for the NADA Show instead of gathering in person in New Orleans.
Caseloads remain high. Nearly half a million people have died — including some dealers. And the virus is mutating. More-contagious variants are spreading.
This seems unlikely to restrict business the way it did last spring — appetite for widespread shutdowns seems to have evaporated. To be sure, there are bright spots. Vaccines are rolling out. Mitigation efforts have proved to combat spread. Perhaps the most important such tactic goes back to the early months of the outbreak: Wear a mask.
Unfortunately, dealers and their employees are not doing this universally. They don't all mandate that customers wear masks. Some customers complain about unmasked personnel in online reviews of dealerships. Photos for various stories submitted to us in recent months show groups of people at dealerships crowded together without masks — or with just a few people masked. Sometimes, masks are visible around their necks. They don't help anyone there.
Dealerships have been the source of numerous outbreaks. Some stores have been cited by authorities for not complying with mask mandates.
So please listen.
If you are a dealer and don't require masks to be worn on your property, change that right now. Do better.
It's not just lives at stake. It's whether children and teachers in your community can return to in-person school safely. It's the livelihoods of employees, customers, other businesses in your community and your own enterprise. Everyone must do their part.
Yes, dealers are optimistic about 2021. And, sure, business results are looking good. But let's not still be in the trenches of this pandemic a year from now. No one wants another virtual NADA Show. May we all look forward to gathering in person in Las Vegas next March. It's how this event is meant to be.