WASHINGTON—Aftermarket automotive service providers are bouncing back from the depths of economic crisis caused by COVID-19.
Whether the rebound will continue, though, is anybody's guess.
As tens of millions of Americans hunkered down during the spring, trips to service shops fell drastically. People locked down hardly needed their cars, and economic worries pushed back preventive maintenance.
As the year has unfolded, the economy continues to re-emerge and people feel more comfortable—rightly or wrongly—about venturing away from home, the need for automobiles and, or course, repair services, has resumed.
"At first, the impact on the auto service sector was tough. We say through mid-May there was a significant drop in sales," said Michael Chung, director of market intelligence for the Auto Care Association.
"As you can image, the companies were highly concerned about their cash positions," he said.
ne of those companies that saw business dramatically fall and then rebound is Zimmerman's Automotive Tire Pros of Mechanicsburg, Pa.
As a second-generation owner of the company, Judy Zimmerman Walter has seen plenty of booms and busts since she began working in the company business in 1975.
This year, however, has been a whole other level.
"The most volatile time I've ever had," she said. "I have never seen anything like it. We've been through a lot of ups and downs with the family business. But nothing like this. It was completely out of our control."
Chung said the summer travel season has helped to boost business at some independent auto shops.
"We've heard some similar sentiments and practices from other shops in some of our communities regarding the increased demand as summer travel hit. What we also heard, looking forward, is all these uncertainties when summer is done, what's going to happen? Are people going to be able to go back to work? Are people going to be able to go back to school?
"Those are some of the big uncertainties that's on a lot of members' minds. What does the future hold?" he asked.
At the Tire Industry Association, CEO Roy Littlefield III said the difficult times earlier this year have given way to more business during the summer for service shops.
"Everybody was home and people didn't want to spend any money. So it was very slow in the bays and a lot of guys were holding on," he said. "The comments I get now are that the bays are pretty full. People are back out driving. People are getting their cars serviced. It came back somewhat to normal," he said.
Commercial business, all along, has been different than the retail side of the business, he said, because trucks continued to move throughout the pandemic as residents hunkered down.
When Littlefield started in the tire industry some 40 years ago, tire shops were tire shops and automotive service shops did their own thing. That's changed drastically over time to the point where the vast majority of tire retailers also now perform other automotive services, and traditional auto service providers are selling tires.
That change came about as gas stations moved away from providing those services to instead embrace the convenience store concept. That transition from brake jobs to beverages opened an opportunity for tire retailers to step in.
Littlefield was asked if life has returned to normal in the automotive service business these days.
"I think that depends on what normal means. But I think the bays are steady now. For most dealers, you are always going to find exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. I don't think it was what it was before, but I think it's steady," he said.
"There's some pent-up demand. I do not believe we are back to what we were. But I believe it's steady," he said.
"It's one of those things that you are going to find an example of every scenario out there. There are some dealers who have done incredibly well. There are some dealers who have struggled and wouldn't have made it without the loans," he said.
The ACA has an ongoing online survey of members designed to gauge the impact of COVID-19.
Over a third (36%) of respondents said they were highly concerned about their cash positions in April, but that number had fallen to 14% in May. The figure was at 17% from July 1 to Aug. 1, so Mr. Chung said the view has been fairly stable since May.