The widespread delays drivers are seeing in getting their car or truck in for service won’t be ending soon, some Capital Region repair shops say.
There’s a confluence of factors causing the problem and no single solution:
- The average age of cars on the road is at a 25-year high, so they may need repair more often and repairs may require more parts;
- Replacement parts are in short supply and are less interchangeable than in the past;
- Parts suppliers are short on drivers to deliver parts to mechanics;
- And there are fewer mechanics working to install those parts.
“The other thing that I would say is that a lot of these problems that cars develop, the simplicity is gone, so it takes longer to make a repair,” said Joel Caruso, owner of Caruso’s Auto Repair in Schenectady.
He’s scheduling a week or more in advance these days, though he’ll try to triage an emergency repair into the shop sooner.
With new car sales stagnating due to production problems, used car sales have increased: The nation’s largest used-car dealer, CarMax, sold a record 452,000 cars in the three months ended May 31, 2021, with the greatest growth in wholesale sales.
Its net revenue for the quarter was 43% higher than 2019 and net earnings were 65% higher.
The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports the average age of light cars and trucks was 11.9 years, the highest on record. It’s not a sudden increase, though: The average age has increased almost every year since 1995, when it was 8.4 years.
PARTS IN DEMAND
This has presented a huge business opportunity to auto parts suppliers, whether the customer is a do-it-yourselfer or a repair shop.
“For the past 15 months or so, we’ve seen significant demand,” said O’Reilly Auto Parts spokesman Mark Merz.
O’Reilly is one of the largest parts suppliers in the United States and has been expanding its presence in New York as it grows operations to all 50 states.
Same-store sales increased 11% from 2019 to 2020 at O’Reilly stores, the most by far in a decade, while the Missouri company’s net income jumped 26%. The first six months of 2021 also showed significant increases in sales, revenue and income over the prior year.
Two of the other large U.S. suppliers, Advance Auto Parts and Autozone, saw their financials get a boost, as well. The fourth large U.S. supplier, NAPA Auto Parts, apparently was the outlier: Parent company Genuine Parts Company reported a small decrease in sales revenue from 2019 to 2020.
“We speculate the strong demand we’ve seen is a result of multiple factors,” Merz said.
At the core is the fact that older vehicles need replacement parts more often.
“Anytime there’s economic uncertainty, consumers make the decision to hold on to their existing vehicles longer than they otherwise would,” Merz said.
In 2020, with travel limited, many people had time on their hands to take on an auto repair project and had the comfort of knowing that if the work didn’t get done in one day, they didn’t need the car to commute the next day, since they were working from home or furloughed.
“Certainly new car sales are below historic averages and are expected to be down in 2021,” Merz said.
Cox Automotive reported in August that the pace of new car sales slowed markedly in July in the United States due to limited supply. At the start of July, it said, new car inventory was at a record low. July 2021 sales were 13.4% lower than July 2019, before the pandemic arrived and the supply chain crises followed.
Marc Treiber, owner of Treiber Nissan in Johnstown, said his dealership doesn’t have much problem getting parts and doesn’t have a waiting list for repairs.
“We really don’t have a backlog,” he said. “Very, very rarely there might be an oddball part we can’t get. We haven’t really had a problem yet.”
But the issue is real for many repair shops, Treiber said. A relative who runs a shop on Long Island has had a top-shelf model in the BMW M series parked for three months because nowhere in the world can he find the parts to repair its limited-edition racing brakes.
“The BMW 5 series, you get all the brakes you want,” Treiber said. “Everybody’s got stories, we’re not getting killed yet.”
Which isn’t to say there are no problems — only that the dealership has been able to get the replacement parts it needs.
“The problem is the price of parts,” Treiber said.
Some tires cost $20 more each now than in April, he said as an example.
Then there’s the production problems automakers face — computer chips are in short supply, and each new vehicle needs dozens.
“Nobody can get a new car in the door because of the stupid chips,” Treiber said. “This is not a Nissan thing, it’s everybody.”
Finally, there’s a shortage of rental vehicles for people who need to leave their cars at the shop.
“There are no daily rentals to be had. Period. The end,” he said.
“This is a messed-up world and it’s not just the car business.”
BACK TO WORK
Larry O’Shea, president and owner of Adirondack Tire & Service, said his dozen shops are able to get the parts they need. The customer may need to show some flexibility on their preferred brand or model tires, but they will get a new set of rubber the same day.
“We buy our parts from a half-dozen suppliers,” he said, and they don’t rely on OEM parts. “We’re pretty much an aftermarket supply.”
Adirondack’s problem at this point is not in the auto parts market but the same place so many other employers have trouble: The labor market.
“Where our problem is lying in the last year, 15 months, is employees,” O’Shea said. “Our business is greatly affected because we cannot put the work out. And the people that are working here are overworked. It’s not just here, the entire country is operating this way.”
He blames enhanced unemployment benefits that made it more lucrative to sit at home than go to work low- to mid-wage jobs, especially when costs for commuting or child care were factored in.
“Stop incentivizing people not to work and start incentivizing them to work,” O’Shea said. “I’m hoping that as we push into the end of summer, people start getting back to work.”
FEWER AND OLDER
Joel Caruso said the auto repair profession has a longer-term problem than parts supply: The number and age of those who install those parts.
“What I’m noticing, the first thing is, this industry is behind the eight ball already in that the average age of a mechanic these days is 54.”
There’s not enough young talent coming into the industry, he said.
Assorted federal agencies report that from 1999 to 2019:
- The U.S. population increased 18%.
- The non-self-employed workforce increased 19%.
- Miles driven annually by Americans increased 23%.
- The number of light vehicles registered by Americans increased 25%.
- The ranks of people employed as auto mechanics and technicians increased 5.2%.
- A related trade, auto body repairers, saw a 25% decrease in its ranks.
2019, of course, was the last year of normalcy.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 14% drop from 2019 to 2020 in the number of mechanics and technicians working for someone other than themselves.
Caruso, now 44 years old, has been working in the trade since he was 16. He made a presentation to his son’s classroom for career day, along with the other parents, but doesn’t see enough young people interested in coming into the profession.
Meanwhile, vehicles are getting more complex with each new model, and take longer to repair, Caruso said. And he doesn’t have space to store a lot of vehicles while he waits for a part to arrive or a mechanic to be available.
And there’s the parts shortage: Mechanics might find any one of three different brake configurations on a single vehicle model and might need any one of 75 oil filters for a particular car. If it’s not one of the more common sizes, they may have to hunt for the right part and wait for it to arrive.
All of these factors come into play when Caruso tells a prospective customer something along the lines of: “Well, we’re looking at next week right now.”
“I think it’s going to get a little worse,” he said.
Reach John Cropley at [email protected], 518-395-3104 or @cropjohn on Twitter.