Car Dealers Shuttering Showrooms

By: CBS
By: CBS

(CBS) With America's car business stuck in reverse, the annual convention of America's car dealers is no party.

"It's hard to say this - we're in a survival mode," said Stephen Wade, who is a typical Utah car dealer.

He's been one since the early 1970s. He's built six franchises.

And last year five of them lost money. Though he won't say how much, he had to layoff 100 people, CBS News correpondent Mark Strassmann reports.

"I've lost about 1/3 of our employees," he said.

On the convention floor, Wade's looking for help and hope, in seminars about survival.

"Is 2009 a make or break year?" Strassmann asked him.

"Yes, yes," he said. "And for so many, so many, it's a break year."

America has 20,000 car dealerships, and sold almost three million fewer new cars last year than in 2007. Instead of closing deals, more dealerships are closing shop.

Nine-hundred dealerships shuttered last year. By one estimate at least another 1,100 will close this year.

Dick Ehert owns a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. He's cut staff, vacation pay, and holiday pay.

He's even back making deals himself. And still, he's losing money.

"To work 80 or 90 hours a week and then write a check to keep the store open, it's just not a lot of fun," Ehert said.

Dealers are also getting squeezed from above. Detroit's big three wants fewer dealerships. So many dealerships are struggling to sell cars for a company that wants them out of business.

"One more shock to the system could be it?" Strassmann asked.

"Don't know how we can handle it," Wade said.

Wade thinks he'll make it.

But for many dealers here, this convention's a last hurrah.

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