DETROIT – Auto sales per U.S. dealership are poised to break a record this year.

That’s because of improving sales, projected to exceed 14.3 million units, and a leaner dealership network,  says John Frith, vice president-retail channel solutions for the consultancy Urban Science.

“Auto makers have kept their networks relatively flat, giving existing dealerships the opportunity to take advantage of increased sales volume,” he says.

Sales per dealership, or throughput, is on pace to reach 805 units per store this year. That would top the previous record high of 784 set in 2005 when deliveries were at 17 million and the number of dealerships topped 20,000.

Last year’s throughput was 719 vehicles. The low point was 513 units in 1991, according to Urban Science tracking.

The U.S. dealership count stands at 17,770 stores as of June. That is an 0.02% uptick since January and a 0.06% increase over 2011, largely because Fiat has established a retail network in the U.S., opening 135 dealerships last year.

The recent increases, while small, “are noteworthy,” because they reverse a trend of a 2% average annual decline in dealerships since 1990 when the store count was about 25,000, Frith says.

The biggest declines occurred in 2009 and 2010 when General Motors and Chrysler slashed dealership numbers as part of their post-bankruptcy reorganization plan.

Frith describes today’s auto retailing as healthy, with dealers “making a profit for the first time in more than three years without having to rely on their service departments to do so.”

He adds: “While individual states experienced minor dealer-count fluctuations, 85% of markets in the U.S. remained stable and experienced no change since the beginning of the year.

“We’re seeing tremendous consistency across the country and perhaps one of the most stable, profitable periods for dealerships in 20 years.”

The recent increase in total stores would have been greater had not Swedish auto maker Saab’s bankruptcy closed 59 stand-alone points, he says.

States with the biggest increase in store counts since 2011 are California (13), Florida (eight) and Texas (five). States with greatest decreases are Michigan (10), Ohio and Georgia (eight each).

Much of the declines in Michigan and Ohio had to do with each state losing four Saab stores, Frith says.

Meanwhile, Urban Science, in releasing its first Franchise Activity Report for China, says that as of June 30, the country has 19,890 automotive franchises.

Based on projected sales of 19.5 million units this year, sales per Chinese dealership would reach 980 units.

In contrast, average throughput in Europe is about 200 to 300 vehicles a year.

The buying experience in China is more similar to the U.S. than to Europe, Frith says.

That’s because Chinese and American consumers are more likely to purchase vehicles from dealer inventory. Europeans usually order a vehicle and wait weeks before the delivery.

Current trends indicate dealer groups will continue to gain in size and influence in China as they merge and acquire smaller dealerships, says Hamilton Gayden, Urban Science China’s managing director.

“With such a fast-growing network and the demand for strong dealer operators, manufacturers are going to need to keep a close eye on the success and profitability of their dealerships,” he says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com