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“After World War II, there were nearly 45,000 dealerships. Now there’s 18,000,” said Timothy Gilbert, chairman of the automotive marketing department at Northwood University’s West Palm Beach site.

“You see how much it’s deteriorated over time. The nature of this being a family business was very strong into the ‘50s and ‘60s and think even into the ‘70s. Beginning in the mid ‘80s and ‘90s, larger businesses began to form. Public companies run a significant volume of total sales in the U.S.”

Those dealerships also are making changes of their own.

“The latest trend of activity is customers are buying vehicles in a different way,” Mr. Gilbert said. “They’re using the Internet much more for information-gathering before they go into the dealership. That means the role of a sales person is changing and the role of how a dealership processes customers and how customers want to be treated is changing.”

Buyers used to come into a showroom armed with little more than a newspaper ad. Today, thanks to the Internet, a customer can find out the specifications of a car, financing options and a good price for their used vehicle.

“That’s a significant change from 10 years ago,” Mr. Gilbert said. “I think it’s a matter of adapting. Old, outlying sales people like to do sales the traditional way. They’re probably not overly thrilled by that.”

Some car companies, however, have embraced the era of social media and are hiring younger, more tech-savvy employees who can connect with customers even before they set foot in the showroom.

“The Internet gives the dealer and the customer a different perspective, a two-way conversation,” Mr. Gilbert said. “Customers connect to a dealership through email, and once you have email addresses you stay in touch build a long-term relationship.”

Whether dealerships will make the change and head back into cities has yet to be determined, but analysts said it’s not out of the question.

Mr. Gilbert said vehicles could be displayed at places like boutiques at Tysons Corner Center or downtown malls.

Tesla Motors, a U.S. company that manufactures luxury electric cars, has a showroom nestled among the lobbying firms on K Street. Mr. Murphy said something between the Tesla store and a full-blown dealership could find its way to the District.

“You need space for a modern dealership today. People want to buy the car, and you need inventory, and you also need industrial-style space for services,” Mr. Murphy said. “Showrooms you can only look at limited number of vehicles. Industrial sectors, New York Avenue, for example, would be a great place to have repair facilities. Even make that a dealer row if you wanted to. There are still industrial sectors in the city where you can do that.”

Mr. Bright said that, despite following customers out to the suburbs, dealerships likely won’t follow them back to the city.

“Today there’s a lot of young people moving into loft areas, building up residential-type communities,” Mr. Bright said. “Car dealers are entrepreneurs. My guess is, because they’re establishing a footprint now, as long as traffic can get to you, that’s where they’ll stay.”