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A row of Ford vehicles on display. Local dealers echo the national scene, saying so far this year, car sales are up.

Auto sales nationwide have increased to begin the year, a pattern Monadnock Region dealerships say they’re experiencing, too, thanks in large part to pent-up demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We saw a very nice increase in all of our stores in the first quarter of this year,” said Bob Swartz, vice president and CEO of Fenton Family Dealerships, which has five locations in Keene and Swanzey.

Overall, new vehicle sales in the U.S. jumped about 8 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year, according to Car and Driver magazine. Swartz said sales at Fenton Family Dealerships were up slightly more than that, with about half of those sales coming from used cars.

Al Germain, a salesman at Summit Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Brattleboro, where first-quarter sales also went up, said he suspects the COVID-19 is driving the increase locally.

“I think the pandemic had something to do with it, everybody being cooped up for a year. I think that might have something to do with it,” he said. “I think the stimulus money helped a lot of people, gave them a reason to come in and buy a new car.”

Larry Monson, general manager of Keene Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, added that people may be looking to buy new vehicles as they begin to return to their offices, instead of working from home.

“So now that people are getting back to work, now is the time to look at what they’re driving,” he said, adding that the dealership’s first-quarter sales were consistent with the nationwide 8 percent increase.

Monson also said Keene Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram has seen increases especially in sales for trucks and SUVs, which he attributes in part to more people seeking outdoor activities during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re selling them as fast as we’re getting them,” he said. “Half of our inbound orders are selling before they get here.”

At Monadnock Ford in Swanzey, first-quarter sales were up about 10 percent, owner Vadim Makhlis said.

“There’s nothing I can specifically point to, except I would chalk it up to pent up demand,” he said of the increase. “I think COVID kept a lot of people from going to car dealer lots, but I think from an economic standpoint, it wasn’t necessarily the first thing on people’s minds in 2020.”

But, Makhlis added, local dealerships are also feeling the effects of a global shortage of semiconductors, also known as microchips, which are integral components of new vehicles.

“First-quarter sales have been up; however what we are dealing with right now are severe inventory issues,” caused by the microchip shortage, he said. “... We probably could have done even better. The business was there, but we didn’t want to run out of vehicles.”

New cars often contain dozens of microchips, and the pandemic-fueled shortage of them has impacted the entire auto industry, leading some manufacturers to temporarily shut down factories, the Washington Post has reported.

“[Sales are] way up, but we have a problem with inventory,” Germain said. “We can’t get the new vehicles.”

Monson said his dealership is experiencing the effects of the microchip shortage “on some levels,” but still performing well overall.

“We’re still getting inventory, and it’s still going pretty quick,” he said. “The supply chain has had issues over the past six months, and there will be issues until things get back to normal.”

Ultimately, Makhlis said, increased auto sales are one of a number of promising signs for the local economy, but the microchip shortage will remain an issue for the foreseeable future.

“The economy is showing signs of turning around. You certainly see that in the economy, but again, with the inventory shortages, it’s going to be interesting,” he said. “… I think it’s going to be a big topic.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.