Auto Dealers Thrive as SUV Sales Rise

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — A little under two years removed from major storm damage to Sweeney Buick GMC, the vice president of the dealership can see the light at the end of the rebuilding project. 

Concrete for the new showroom was set to be poured the week of Oct. 7, marking the beginning of the end of a process that began in November 2017, after a wind shear destroyed much of the roof and caused a wall to collapse. 

“It almost doesn’t seem like it was that long ago,” says Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, noting the new store should open in March. 

The current Buick and GMC dealership will be demolished after the move and converted into more lot space, she says. And that extra room is much needed. 

“We look at both dealerships as one entity. We’re up year-over-year at both stores and with used cars,” she says. “Our method has always been to focus, rather on what’s going on outside, on what we can control. That starts with customer experience.”

Outside their control is the ongoing United Auto Workers strike, which has stopped production at General Motors. The strike hasn’t much affected the Sweeney dealerships yet.

“We’re in a good position because we carry a lot of inventory anyway,” she says. “We also put thought into parts ahead of time so service wouldn’t be disrupted. We stockpiled and gave them more inventory room.”

The two Sweeney stores – Chevy on the western side of Market Street in Boardman and Buick GMC on the eastern side – have been a fixture at the top of local sales charts compiled by the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association, with one of them topping the list four months this year. When it hasn’t been in the top spot, Sweeney Chevrolet has been the No. 2 dealership all but once.

Overall, new-car sales in the Mahoning Valley – measured by registrations filed with the Ohio secretary of state for addresses in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties – are up 6.4% through the first nine months of 2019, totaling 25,380. 

Still driving the market are SUVs and trucks, Sweeney Blackann says.

“October is [Chevrolet’s] Truck Month, so we’re moving a lot of those right now. The new Blazer, it seems people are starting to want that and it’s getting better. All of the SUVs are always popular,” she says. 

At Scheidemantle Motors in Hermitage, Pa., it’s a similar story, says salesman Jeff Crivelli. The Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram dealership has seen the new Jeep Gladiator – the brand’s re-entry to the pickup market – move quickly, along with the Jeep Cherokee on both the new- and used-car markets.

“It’s the quality of the Cherokee. It’s built tougher. And those four letters – J-E-E-P – make it better for resale. The value is closer to retail than anyone else,” he says of the model, noting that about a quarter of sales at the dealership last month were Cherokees. On one day in September, he adds, the store sold eight Cherokees between its new and pre-owned sales departments.

Nationally, the Ram pickup line overtook the Chevrolet Silverado as the No. 2 pickup truck behind the Ford F-150. Sales of the Ram truck so far this year have totaled 461,115, up 23% from the first nine months of 2018.

Likely helping Scheidemantle’s numbers is the larger shift in the market toward crossovers and SUVs, Crivelli adds.

“A lot of crossover [sales result] because people are starting to get away from their SUVs. People who are buying those are usually getting them because it still has that all-wheel drive and it’s got better mileage,” he says. “If you want to buy something full-size, you’re still looking at $65,000.”

For Rob Fellman, owner of Boardman Subaru, that played into the manufacturer’s wheelhouse, he says, as the Japanese automaker has long focused on crossovers before the term came into vogue over the past decade. Boardman Subaru is also a fixture in the top-five sales chart of the Mahoning Valley, a position it’s moved into since an expansion was completed a few years ago.

“We’ve been increasing ever since we bought the store back in ’05. Subaru has really started improving their product and we started selling every car we could get,” Fellman says. “We want to be the biggest and best dealer out there, not just the best Subaru dealer.”

While domestic automakers still account for most sales in the area, foreign manufacturers such as Subaru are making deep inroads, with Taylor Kia of Boardman also making a few appearances at the top of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers’ sales list. 

“All but one model are all-wheel drive; so they all fall into that SUV or crossover category that’s become really popular,” Fellman says. “And while Ford and GM are doing away with their cars, Subaru has a couple of sedans, the Impreza and Legacy, that do very well. People still want sedans.”

Unlike the Sweeney stores, however, Fellman says he doesn’t have more plans to expand.

“At this point, we’re working at max capacity. We’ve got eight acres and 40,000 square feet and we’re still running out of room,” he says. “As far as expansion, there’s nothing definite but we’re always looking for new opportunities.”

Pictured: The new Sweeney Buick GMC store should open in spring, says vice president Alexa Sweeney Blackann.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.