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Cars galore, but few customers

America's collective mind was not on everyday business last week, which was painfully clear at auto dealerships. Traffic was way down, and the usual humor was absent. Automotive News reporters visited three dealerships - in Virginia, Michigan and California - to gauge the mood and outlook.

CERRITOS, Calif. - Finding the right car is an easy task at the 25 dealerships of Cerritos Auto Square on Studebaker Road. But last Tuesday, one week after the terrorist attacks, finding a customer there was a challenge.

Two or three salesmen in front of each store had nothing to do but watch their inventory. Though Tuesday morning may not be prime time for selling, the dealerships usually see more consumers at all hours.

"There are always people here," said Clarence Bourne, a sales manager at Cerritos Nissan, where a rotating balloon on top of the building sports the Stars and Stripes. "It's like a mall - there's everything you could want here."

Most dealers say traffic at Cerritos Auto Square has dropped by 35 percent to 40 percent since the attacks. The most noticeable slowdown came Saturday, Sept. 15.

"It's usually like Disneyland here on Saturdays," Bourne said. "But not last Saturday. People were just worried about everything that was going on."

Dave Conant, president of Conant Auto Retail Group, which runs Norm Reeves Honda, the country's largest volume Honda dealer, said the atmosphere has changed as well as the traffic load.

"We haven't heard any big laughter in this store the past week," Conant said.

He also said he has told his salespeople not to bring up the terrorist attacks when speaking with customers. "If customers want to talk about it, then fine - but we want this to be a diversion for them."

But Conant, reminded of similar circumstances at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, is confident consumers slowly will come around. He and other dealers have acknowledged President Bush's request that people go back to work.

"With the president's call to get things back to normal - people are listening," Conant said.

Some customers agree. David Teklehaimanot, 40, of Los Angeles, was looking at Explorers on the Cerritos Ford lot. He said the attacks weren't going to affect his decision to buy because he simply needs a car.

"It doesn't affect me as far as this purchase is concerned," Teklehaimanot said. "This one is a necessity for me."

Jennifer Musser, 24, sees this as an ideal time to buy.

"The stock market is going down, and so are interest rates," Musser said as she perused the lot at Norm Reeves Honda, holding her 5-month-old baby girl.

"So now is the better buying opportunity. Plus, buying a car is doing my part to help the economy. If I'm just sitting around, I'm not helping anything."

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