WHAT VACATION?

Years ago, the UAW negotiated a long paid holiday between Christmas and New Year's, shutting down UAW-represented auto plants.

It wasn't too long before automakers' entire work forces decided this was a great idea. So today, just about everybody at the Big*3 goes on a holiday from just before Christmas to right after New Year's.

But the vacation gives everyone at the Big*3 a mistaken impression. The U.S. auto industry surely hasn't shut down. Hundreds of thousands of folks are still working hard to move the iron and service the cars. Many thousands of automobiles will be sold during this period, even if few are built.

Manufacturers' ideal number of cars in the pipeline is about a 60-day supply. That's roughly one-sixth of the year's production, or roughly 21/2 million cars and trucks in stock even when the Big 3 factories shut down for a couple of weeks.

So we've got millions of cars and trucks to sell, tens of millions of cars and trucks to service and plenty to do. As long as the retail business is going on fast and furious, the auto business is alive and well and plenty busy. Without the retail business, things would quickly grind to a halt.

Recently, I was talking to someone who had just joined the automobile business on the wholesale side. I suggested that he cultivate a couple dozen key dealers that he could call from time to time so that he really knows what's going in his business. It's far too easy to sit in an ivory tower and lose touch with the real world. In the retail business, you can figure out what's really going on.

General Motors marketers are doing a lot more focus groups than they used to. You can't help but wonder why they failed to discover that all their prospects would want two airbags, both in cars and trucks, laws or no laws. If some of those marketers had spent some time in dealerships, they could have found out all that information quicker and for a lot less money.

This week, thousands of people are heading for their dealer to buy a new car or truck. Millions will be heading there for service.

When the dealer opens the store for business in the morning, a lot is going on in the automobile business.

The customer will let you shut down a factory for a couple of weeks. But try it on the retail side, and you just might shut down the economy. Happy New Year.

You can reach Keith Crain at kcrain@crain.com

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