Auto Dealers Report 2021 Profits Will Break Previous Record

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

With so many articles discussing how poor automotive sales have been through 2021, one could be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a hard year for anybody owning a dealership. However, the reality of the matter is that it’s a seller’s market and those who can sell are making a killing off everyone else’s misery.

The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) has reported that the ongoing deficit of product has helped the average store rake in more money than they did in 2020, breaking the previous twelve-month profitability record. Today’s average dealership is reporting a net pretax profit of about $3.38 million through October for 2021. That’s more than twice what was tallied within the same timeframe last year and really goes to show how much money can be made when the customer’s needs are the only items being discounted.

We’ve covered escalating automotive pricing for a while now, with Matthew Guy having just shared the latest on the absolute madness that is the secondhand market. That piece also explores some of the long-term ramifications of having the market that’s gotten so far out of whack — which could be handy for anyone thinking about purchasing another vehicle soon.

But it’s really not much better for those buying new. Thanks to dealer markets and lengthening loan agreements, margins are high across the board. NADA estimated that the U.S. retail gross profit per new vehicle was averaging around $3,928 for 2021, whereas used vehicles were averaging at a very close $3,651 per unit.

Those estimates are conservative and fail to take into account just how much rates have pitched up in the latter months, however. If we take a look at December, most tracking the market have the new vehicle profits averaging around $5,000 per car. For example, J.D. Power recently told Automotive News that the average dealership made roughly $5,200 on every new car sold last month — which is more than triple what they were making over the same period in 2019.

From AN:

The good times — for dealers — should continue into the new year: 2022 is likely to be the most profitable year dealerships have ever recorded, as inventories remain at near-record-low levels, said Tyson Jominy, J.D. Power’s vice president of data and analytics.

While production is expected to rebound this year, the additional volume should be quickly absorbed by retail and fleet customers starved of vehicles last year. “With 4 million to 5 million units of pent-up demand, vehicles are barely going to touch the dealer lot before they are delivered,” Jominy said.

The only real positive angle there is to this is the fact that the extremely lean volumes we’ve encountered all year finally pitched back up in December. New-vehicle inventories were at an insanely low 15-day average for both October and November. However, December saw the number increase by anywhere between 2 to 5 days, depending on who you’re asking. According to NADA, the number of used vehicles retailed by the typical U.S. dealership through October also rose by 6.3 percent. Though this did nothing to harm profitability, as gross profit continued to climb by 67 percent on new product and 36 percent for secondhand wares.

Considering how well this appears to be working for the industry, we’re not sure when the gouging will dissipate. The semiconductor shortage, which has made an incredibly convenient excuse for shocking low production volumes, is now supposed to stretch out through 2022. But there are general supply issues that similarly need to be addressed and even the idyllic scenarios leave the North American market failing to manufacture anywhere near enough vehicles to meet pent-up demand.

Looking to get a square deal on an automobile this year? Perhaps it’s time to update your bartering tactics for 2022 and remember that it pays to have done your research in advance. Learn everything you can about the car in question and what it might be going for elsewhere. Now may also be the time to study up on where the salesperson and their immediate superior lives and does their shopping. Make it a point to bump into them as often as possible, reminding them about how intensely disappointed you would be if you thought you weren’t getting anything other than a fair deal. If that doesn’t seem to be working, try strengthening the relationship further by sending an unsigned and out-of-season Christmas or Halloween card addressed to literally everyone in their household! Surprise them back at the dealership later by asking if they received anything interesting in the mail recently and laughing heartily in fellowship before getting back to business.

If push comes to shove, make mention of what time they turn their lights off to go to bed and start listing off which schools their children go to. Then begin joking about how you might just take their car when they’re not paying attention. Sure, it might be perceived as a little too familiar by some. But you would be amazed by what can be accomplished by just talking with someone while constantly adjusting your waistband.

You could also simply hold off on buying a new vehicle — provided your present situation even allows for that — in the desperate hope that others will be following suit.

All kidding aside, that’s probably the only realistic option people have right now. Dealers currently aren’t taking the hint because consumers continue selling out the big bucks. If the market shows that the outer limits of vehicular pricing have been reached, odds are good prices will come back down through 2022. Though this assumes that production volumes have likewise returned to something approaching normality and the industry doesn’t respond like it did in 2008. For now, dealers are gearing up for suppressed output and even bigger profits by the end of 2022. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to bend over and take it, however.

[Image: Gretchen Gunda Enger/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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5 of 37 comments
  • Master Baiter Master Baiter on Jan 04, 2022

    In a time of high inflation like we have now, it's not news that anything measured in absolute dollars has set some sort of record.

    • See 2 previous
    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Jan 04, 2022

      @FreedMike Definitely part of the problem but not the sole culprit (but then again any macroeconomic issue seldom has a single source).

  • Jeff S Jeff S on Jan 04, 2022

    Not going to pay above MSRP to a dealer that has a lousy service department. I don't have to buy a new vehicle so I can wait as you said it is a capitalist economy and no one is forcing me to buy a new vehicle above MSRP. There are still some reputable dealers that do not charge above MSRP especially if you order, pay a deposit down, and get your order in writing. I ordered a new Maverick last July that way and it has a build date for the week of Feb 14. I will more than likely get service and parts at the dealer I ordered my Maverick from if they treat me right. I bought an S-10 from a Chevy dealership that once had a good service department but later when I paid for my repairs I had to take my S-10 back several times to get them to repair it right and once they didn't tell me where they parked my truck after I paid the bill--I had to search the dealership lot and found it in the lot where the employees parked their cars (this was a large dealership with large lots). After a couple of bad experiences with this dealership I never went back especially since I spent thousands of my own dollars for service and repair. Went to an independent shop that repaired my truck right. Replacing a clutch and slave valve along with a brake job should be in the scope of a dealership especially a dealership where you bought that vehicle new from. Should I reward a dealership with a bad service department that does not stand by their own work by paying 5k above MSRP?

  • Vulpine A sedan version of either car makes it no longer that car. We've already seen this with the Mustang Mach-E and almost nobody acknowledges it as a Mustang.
  • Vulpine Not just Chevy, but GM has been shooting itself in the foot for the last three decades. They've already had to be rescued once in that period, and if they keep going as they are, they will need another rescue... assuming the US govt. will willing to lose more money on them.
  • W Conrad Sedans have been fine for me, but I were getting a new car, it would be an SUV. Not only because less sedans available, but I can't see around them in my sedan!
  • Slavuta More hatchbacks
  • ED I don't know what GM is thinking.I have a 2020 one nice vehicle.Got rid of Camaro and was going to buy one.Probably won't buy another GM product.Get rid of all the head honchos at GM.This company is a bunch of cheapskates building junk that no one wants.