Southern Vermont auto-repair shops are asking customers to be patient as they deal with difficulties and delays getting car parts.
This year has seen supply-chain disruptions from shortages of the microprocessors used in newer cars to factories shutting down to congestion at West Coast ports, said Mike Chung, director of market intelligence for the Auto Care Association, an industry group. "This year, 2021, there have been so many more sort of shakes of the rug, and just so many more disruptions."
Meanwhile, Americans started driving more again, after a decline following the onset of the pandemic in 2020, according to federal data. That could be a signal of higher demand — Chung said vehicle miles traveled tends to be a bellwether for spending on auto repair and servicing.
Chung said the supply-chain problems affecting the broader economy might be now be reaching the auto repair industry.
"I feel like this is the beginning of the wave, in a way," he said. "Based on everything I'm seeing in the news and other data points, it makes sense that you're starting to hear these concerns."
Amanda Shortsleeve of Million Mile Muffler in Manchester said the business has struggled with brake parts for Subarus, among other things, "which is ridiculous, because Subarus are pretty much the number one car driven around Vermont." Mufflers from one company, Thrush, used to be available the same day and now take two months, she said.
Sometimes mechanics can swap in a part from a different brand, rather than replacing the exact item a customer previously had, she said.
One item in short supply is important for winter in New England — snow tires.
"I think a lot of the product's gonna dry up quick," said Donny Wassick, owner of Wassick Tire Service in Bennington. "That's what I'm told from some suppliers."
He said he has a couple pages' worth of customers waiting on back-ordered tires.
Anyone who needs new winter tires this year should "inquire right away," he said.
In some cases, difficulty ordering parts has caused delays.
"Last week, we had to wait a week for rotors for a Toyota Rav4," something that’s usually available the same day or the next day, said Bud Buell, owner of Southern Vermont Auto in Bennington.
Auto-body shops in Southern Vermont listed various parts they've had trouble sourcing, but said that’s not limited to any one item.
"Our selection is definitely not as good as it has been, for quality and availability of parts," said Dan Deitz, owner of Brattleboro Tire. Prices have gone up too, he said.
For Deitz, catalytic converters have been among the hardest items to source, "just because people are going around stealing them."
No bumper crop
Co-owner Amanda Smith said Brattleboro Autobody & Detailing has had a Kia for three weeks because they can't order a bumper.
"One car's a bumper, the next car's maybe a wiring harness, the next one a door," Smith said. "So there's not just one thing."
Each week, the shop orders parts for appointments the next week, she said. "It's typical to have at least one out of our appointments for the following week that we have to reschedule because of lack of parts."
Photo appraisals — rather than an appraiser inspecting the damage in person — can further delay the process, because they often miss something and have to be revised, she said. She noted that insurers in Vermont must provide an in-person appraisal when a driver requests it.
How customers react
As supply-chain disruptions play out, it's worth watching how consumers react, said Chung of the Auto Care Association.
"What'll be interesting to see is that kind of customer loyalty with regard to, 'OK, if I take my car to this shop, my favorite shop, and they're not able to get me that part, maybe I go to a competitor,'" he said.
Or, if that part is "in the Pacific Ocean somewhere" and completely unavailable, "Am I able to drive? Do I perhaps make that decision to sell my car?"
Shortsleeve, of Million Mile Muffler, said most customers have been understanding when there's a delay, but some have gotten frustrated.
"I know it's nothing like it used to be, but it's different times right now, and we're trying the best we can," she said.