The average number of new vehicles sold by U.S. dealers fell last year to its lowest level since 2012 as the COVID-19 pandemic strained consumer demand and the dealership population dropped slightly.
The figure, known as throughput, declined in 2020 by 133 vehicles to 807, according to Urban Science's annual Automotive Franchise Activity Report. Eight years earlier, the number was 812. From 2013 to 2019, throughput rose as high as 966 and as low as 874, according to the report. In 2009, the final year of the Great Recession, throughput was 564.
Last February, before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, Urban Science had forecast a throughput decline for 2020, but only by 14 vehicles.
U.S. light-vehicle sales fell 14 percent to 14.6 million in 2020, according to the Automotive News Research & Data Center. It was the lowest volume since 2012.
"With this current stable dealer count, the throughput statistic is controlled primarily by the sales volume," Mitch Phillips, global director of data at Urban Science, said in a statement. For 2021, "sales are forecasted to rise to over 15.4 million vehicles which would result in the throughput rising to around 865 units per store."
That would mark the first increase since 2018. Such a level would be close to 2013's count of 874 vehicles.
The number of U.S. new-vehicle dealerships dipped in 2020. It was the second year in a row in which both new dealerships and throughput declined.
There were 18,157 new-vehicle dealerships as of Jan. 1, 2021, a 0.2 percent fall from the number of stores on Jan. 1, 2020. It follows a decline in 2019, which was the first drop in six years.
The report called 2020's decrease in dealerships "small" and said it "still indicates continued stability overall," noting that while there were 38 fewer dealerships in 2020, the decline was less than 2019's drop of 99.
The report said the vast majority of local markets had virtually no net change — gaining or losing no more than one dealership.
Georgia and New York had the largest decreases in dealerships in 2020, with both states down eight each. California had seven fewer.
North Carolina and Florida saw the largest growth, with both states adding nine dealerships each. Wisconsin added four.
In a separate online study conducted in late October, Urban Science found that U.S. consumers were becoming “increasingly comfortable with visiting a dealership in-person.”
Sixty-four percent of respondents said they believed it was “completely safe to go to a dealership today,” while, in a separate question, 42 percent said they were “comfortable visiting a dealership within the next month or sooner.”