Auto makers could find themselves doubling down on discount offers this month after a series of snowstorms walloped huge parts of the U.S., shutting down some dealerships for as many as seven days.

“It’s just what you’d expect. There was definitely an effect,” Jeff Conrad, vice president-Acura sales, tells Ward’s.

“In the markets where the weather was bad in February, people stopped shopping. In areas unaffected by the snow, cold and ice, we had good traffic levels.”

A storm last week tore through the Midwest, dumping up to 15 in. (38 cm) of snow in Chicago and basically shutting the city down. Metro areas all over the Heartland were affected.

“We were closed for the first time ever, for one day,” says Orlando DeLuna, a sales manager at Mike Anderson Chevrolet in Chicago. “Everybody here was closed.”

DeLuna agrees with a long-held industry mantra that a sale deferred is not a sale lost. But he adds, “People get in the mood to buy a car; they get a day to think about it, and maybe they change their mind.”

Additional blizzards hit the nation’s mid-section again this week, piling still more snow on beleaguered cities and blanketing a strip through the nation’s South.

February’s weather also comes after record January snowfalls in the Northeast.

Auto makers survived those storms, registering a 17.3% increase in the month compared with year-ago, according to Ward’s data. Sales gains were smaller from December to January, when consumers weary from Christmas shopping usually stop spending to start the new year.

But the latest snowball hurled by Old Man Winter might be having a greater impact on the industry, just as it starts to gain some real momentum out of the recession. Last month’s seasonally annual adjusted sales rate of 12.5 million vehicles marked the fourth consecutive month above 12 million units.

“We’ve definitely have seen lower traffic and retail sales so far this month, compared with January,” says John Krafcik, president of Hyundai Motor America.

General Motors says it has received no reports of widespread dealer closings due to the weather. Chrysler says its dealers withstood the storms, too.

Ford tells Ward’s it does not communicate with its dealers on those independent business decisions.

Toyota Motor Sales USA says last week’s storm closed some of its dealers in affected regions between one and five days. Others braved the storms and were open for business, but saw few customers visit its showrooms or service departments.

Since Jan. 1, inclement weather has cost some 35% of Toyota’s 229 Lexus-brand dealers at least one day of business.

But circumstances favor the industry this month. For starters, the bout of bad weather has occurred early in the month, which means – barring additional storms – much of the slow start could be made up without severe discounting.

“If the remainder of the month is better weather-wise, we'll be O.K,” Acura’s Conrad says.

And with Presidents’ Day on the February holiday calendar, many shoppers will have an extra day off from work to hit the showrooms.

If slowdowns are weather-related, “often it comes back and you get it by the end of the month,” Krafcik says. “That’s a big question mark. Everyone I’ve spoken to seems concerned about the slow sales pace.”

During January bad weather, an estimated 116 of Hyundai’s East Coast dealers were down for five days and about 75 of its Southeast stores, excluding those in Florida, closed for two days. The auto maker’s sales in the month slid 6.6%.

Last week, roughly 114 Hyundai dealers in the Central region closed for two days because of the weather.

At least the industry has managed to keep its sense of humor. Last week, Chrysler’s Dodge brand poked fun at the near-panic incited by reports of pending snowstorms by releasing a commercial highlighting its all-wheel-drive offerings.

“Without all-wheel-drive, it’s the end of the world,” the spot says. “With Dodge all-wheel-drive, it’s just snow.”

– with Christie Schweinsberg, Byron Pope, Tom Murphy in Chicago and Eric Mayne in San Francisco

jamend@wardsauto.com