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Auto sales dip in Oct. as storm crimps activity

Keywords: Tags  Auto sales, Ford, Erich Merkle, Ken Czubay, Bob Carter, Chevrolet, Toyota, American Red Cross Corinna Petry

CHICAGO — Sales by the top seven U.S. automakers totaled 925,028 light vehicles in October, a 5.8-percent improvement from a year earlier but a 9-percent slide from 1,016,420 vehicles in September.

Year-to-date sales topped 10.1 million vehicles, up 11.4 percent from the first nine months of 2011.

Some automakers suggested they saw a loss in sales during the last week of October due to Hurricane Sandy, which cut a path of destruction up the East Coast.

"We estimate Hurricane Sandy accounted for 300,000 lost retail sales (industrywide) in October," Ford Motor Co.’s U.S. sales analyst, Erich Merkle, said during a conference call Thursday. Nonetheless, the industry is running at a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate of 14.7 million vehicles and "remains at forecast," he said.

"What we have learned historically is that sales (are) postponed after a tragedy then rebound when households stabilize," said Ken Czubay, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service. "Many vehicles were partially or totally damaged by flood waters. Insurance payouts will allow consumers to buy new vehicles. I expect we’ll see a lot of that. That should start in November."

But it may take some time for auto dealers themselves to recover. "Hurricane Sandy packed a punch that has left many dealers hanging out to dry," said Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, which represents nearly 400 dealerships. He estimated that more than 60 percent of members were affected by the storm, "with problems ranging from power outages, facility and/or vehicle damage, and flooding." The association called on automakers to provide assistance to dealers, who in many cases have seen inventories on their lots wiped out due to flooding and wind damage.

"(Ford’s credit division) is helping consumers with (payment) extensions (while) parts and vehicle operations are helping to get dealers back in business," Czubay said. "We are using all available resources to make that happen."

Automakers also are donating vehicles toward the cleanup effort and money for assistance. Chevrolet, for example, has donated 50 Silverado pickup trucks and Express cargo vans to the American Red Cross for use in relief and recovery efforts, while other automakers said they have made donations to the American Red Cross.

Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Co. said it will offer payment relief options to vehicle owners in 13 states and the District of Columbia who become delinquent due to circumstances related to the storm.

"Despite the impact of Sandy, we look for the market to remain strong in the months ahead," Bob Carter, Toyota senior vice president of automotive operations, said in a statement.

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