Somber mood slows dealer traffic

Auto sales began to pick up late last week at Rosenthal Chrysler-Jeep in Arlington, Va., about a mile and a half from the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, General Manager Hal Farrington could feel the impact of the crash of the hijacked plane.

As surrounding streets were closed to allow emergency vehicles through, his showroom was left empty.

But by Friday, sales were nearly back to normal, Farrington said.

"We weren't getting a lot of tire kickers," he said. "These people were serious about buying a car."

Dealers around the country reported similar extremes. Everywhere, the mood was somber. In some cases, sales reflected that. But there were also bursts of buying.

Daniel Ramirez, owner of Ramirez Ford in Rio Grande City, Texas, said his dealership was on its way to its best sales month ever until Tuesday's events.

The store was tracking to sell a record 130 new and used vehicles sales in September. Then business dropped 50 percent Tuesday and Wednesday.

In New York, Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, expects the attacks to take a heavy toll on the area's economy.

Ben Hollingsworth, chairman of Group 1 Automotive Inc. in Houston, said sales were off 20 percent at the company's Houston stores. But he believes those declines can be offset by a healthy service business.

"When people hang onto cars longer, they need to get them fixed," he said.

Some in panic to buy cars

In Grand Island, Neb., Roe Buick- Olds-Pontiac Inc. normally sell four cars in a day, but it sold eight cars immediately after the attacks, largely to retirees.

"I am amazed," said General Manager Doug Somer. "People who were going to take planes don't want to fly anymore. They are instead buying cars."

But Roe's other dealership, Grand Island Nissan, did only a third of its normal business. The clientele is younger, with less disposable income, and could be holding off on big purchases, Somer reasoned.

On the used-car side, Mel Farr, owner of Mel Farr Automotive Group (Ford-Lincoln-Mercury-Suzuki-Hyundai-Kia), in Oak Park, Mich., said business was steady at his used-car superstore on Tuesday and Wednesday because the store caters to "need" buyers.

"People are not in the mood to do anything except what they have to do," he said.

No lively auctions

Don Harris, COO of ADESA Corp. in Indianapolis, said many dealers who regularly use air transportation to attend out-of-town ADESA auctions were missing last week.

Ray Nichols, CEO of BSC America Cos., which includes four wholesale auto auctions, said the General Services Administration called and canceled a sale of 350 vehicles that was to take place at his Maryland auction site Thursday, Sept. 20.

Sales not only issue

Greg Goodwin, CEO of the Portland, Ore.-based Kuni Automotive Group, was thinking about his son, who just flew to New York to go to college.

In an e-mail to the chain's 650 employees, Goodwin encouraged employees to try to continue their normal business routine.

"This (terrorist attack) is about fear," he said. "We are trying to stay focused on getting things done."

You can reach Arlena Sawyers at asawyers@crain.com

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