Southern United's Bowers credits some of his group's success to betting big on inventory early in the crisis. In March, he bought $10 million in rental-car inventory, scooping up coveted vehicles such as Chevrolet Tahoes and Suburbans. He also focused on market share and said his company had a record month for service and parts in July, with customer-pay business up 10 percent.
"If you'd have told me in March and April that I would be talking about record months in every department in every store in every state in June and July, I'd have looked at you like you were crazy," Bowers said.
Many dealerships are operating leaner today vs. before the pandemic, something likely to aid profitability, experts say.
"There is an opportunity for there to be an overall lower expense structure post all of this," Crowe's Kippe said.
For example, online retailing, which has increased during the pandemic, can reduce the cost of sales, she said. Advertising spending will increasingly move online, which generally is less expensive, Kippe added.
AutoNation's Jackson credited the company's second-quarter success in part to efficiencies gained through digital capabilities such as a proprietary equity-mining tool and another tool that provides customer transaction history. Cost cuts and lower interest rates that aided customers and lowered floorplan interest expense also helped.
And Jackson, who is optimistic a COVID-19 vaccine is on its way, said he's bullish on auto retail headed into 2021.
"This demand for personal mobility will very much remain so for retail automotive, new and pre-owned. I think the outlook is quite positive, quite confident," Jackson told analysts. "You combine that with the fact that I believe we are going to have low interest rates for both ourselves and our customers for years, gives me a very positive outlook about auto retail sales."
Jackie Charniga and Lindsay VanHulle contributed to this report.