Valley News Correspondent
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Business has been strong at the Upper Valley Auto Mart where Brad Gilman, 61, sells used cars.
But cars themselves are hard to find during the COVID-19 pandemic and prices are rising.
“The challenge has been (just) finding inventory to sell to people,” Gilman said.
Customers know they have to act fast. Waiting a week may mean losing the car, so Gilman has seen his customers go from inquiry to purchase in much less time than in years past.
Auto Mart has been sourcing cars as far west as Michigan and as far south as Florida. But the business has to pay the cost of shipping somehow, so the vehicles that make their way across the country to White River Junction cost more.
Gilman saw prices climb 5% just this year and he does not anticipate that they will fall to the pre-pandemic baseline.
“I’ve seen this trend three times in 40 years, and I’ve never seen them go back down more than a couple percent,” he said. “Once they go up, they stay up.”
Gilman has had time to learn the ins and outs of the used car market.
“I got into the business on October 10, 1979,” he said, with a characteristic ease with exact numbers. “It was accidental, I had gone to college for a little bit, and then I came back home, and I needed a job. And I had seen a sign, so I decided to stop.”
He made $27,000 that first year at a car dealership — twice the average pay of about $12,000. He saw no reason to go back to school and he never did.
Although he never needed a bachelor’s degree, he took what he learned in college to heart.
“The little bit I went to school, junior college,” he remembered. “I had a professor tell me, ‘you find a profession you like, and if you like it, you learn it, you stick with it, and you’ll be very successful in life. If you like it, you like going to work, you enjoy what you do, you’ll make a career out of it, and no matter what the line of work is you’ll end up being happy and successful with your life.’
“It’s absolutely true. I love the car business.”
The car business has changed a great deal since Gilman responded to the ad that led to his career.
Beginning last October, Auto Mart’s customers can do the extensive paperwork that ordinarily can make purchasing a car a long ordeal online at their kitchen table.
Upper Valley Auto Mart has held its own against online competitors, but Gilman has seen how brick dealerships adapt. Typically, customers first inquire about a car online before coming to see it. If they like the car’s description enough, they can pre-apply online. Then they can come in and test drive the car, and if they like it, they simply sign the paperwork and drive home with a new car.
“It’s what we call sign’n’drive — so they’re here for 20 minutes, then they’re out in maybe 30 minutes,” he said.
Online competitors may have put pressure on Auto Mart to take advantage of technology to streamline their customers’ shopping experience, but Gilman does not see national entities Vroom or Carvana as a serious threat to the well-being of a physical dealership.
“There’s no real competition from them,” Gilman said. “They’re not cheaper.”
Gilman and his colleagues bid on every car they buy. He says that Vroom or Carvana often pay thousands more for the same model, leaving the customer with a higher price tag.
He added that — contrary to rumors — the people of the car industry are honest, except for the inevitable bad apples.
Indeed, he argues that they don’t have much choice in the matter: The piles of paperwork that go along with purchasing a car go to regulators to ensure that dealers are not overcharging customers.
“And don’t take this the wrong way,” he added. “A buyer is way more apt to lie to a dealer than the other way around.”
An online system has enabled him to verify his customers’ claims about better details at other car dealerships. He can check other dealers’ prices instantly, and if a car is cheaper elsewhere, he can see why. As little as five years ago, he would not have had a way to investigate his customers’ claims so conclusively.