The wild response to the government's "Cash for Clunkers" program may have helped some 700,000 drivers breathe in that ephemeral new-car smell, but this Fool's nose detects the sweeter scent of long-term opportunity.
The program's resounding success certainly culled some older vehicles from the roads and converted them to scrap, but I believe that a cultural shift into thrift will challenge the new-car sales market for years to come. New-car retailer AutoNation (NYSE: AN ) is expanding operations to position for recovery, but I consider the move drastically premature.
On the other end of the spectrum, scrappy steelmaker Schnitzer Steel (Nasdaq: SCHN ) is expanding its presence in the self-service market for used parts. Schnitzer announced last week that it will offload its full-service retail parts business to LKQ (Nasdaq: LKQX ) , in exchange for six self-service auto-parts facilities and an undisclosed sum of cash. After this move, Schnitzer will operate 45 self-service facilities under the Pick-n-Pull brand in 14 U.S. states and Western Canada.
Geographically focused near the company's existing scrap operations, the acquired operations will enhance Schnitzer's vertical integration between its auto-parts and metal-recycling business segments. Furthermore, I believe that shifting focus from retail to self-service operations will allow to company to benefit from an emerging micro-trend within the shift to thrift.
Cost deferment hits households
Although AutoZone (NYSE: AZO ) recently reported another double-digit increase in adjusted net earnings for the fiscal fourth quarter, management noted a disturbing development. The company's sales mix has shifted toward lower-margin items such as filters and brake pads, a move that to this Fool suggests that drivers are delaying necessary repairs. Logic dictates that big-ticket repairs can be deferred for only so long. Over the long haul, I continue to foresee strength in the markets for both new and used auto parts, and retailers such as Genuine Parts (NYSE: GPC ) and Advance Auto Parts (NYSE: AAP ) are bound to benefit.
When penny-pinching households finally address those deferred auto repairs, I believe that lower-cost, self-service facilities such as those acquired by Schnitzer Steel will find themselves bustling with activity. Schnitzer's auto-parts segment still represents a small portion of the company's overall business, and prospective investors are encouraged to focus research upon the broader metal-recycling market and companies such as Sims Metal Management (NYSE: SMS ) . For positioning itself to benefit from a shift to thrift, however, I believe that Schnitzer's long-term prospects just turned a little steelier.
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