Amid clunker chaos, dealers are reanimated

I’ve talked to a lot of dealers the past few weeks -- we all have here at Automotive News. For all the clunker horror stories of red tape, crashing government Web sites, late payments, inventory crunches and long hours filing claims, what strikes me most is a change in how dealers sound.

Dealers found their voice. They are reanimated, re-energized.

Sure, the cash-for-clunkers program spike in business helps. For the first time in a year, prospects had a sense of urgency, wanting to score a new ride before the gov’nmint dough ran out. Meager margins rose. That trickle of reluctant buyers pinching every dime turned into clusters of folks fixated on Uncle Sam’s goodies.

But beyond that, the very clumsiness of clunkers also helped dealers rally. Yes, the goofy rules and hapless processing hurt far more than necessary.

But it also put a face on a previously faceless adversary. Dealership personnel dusted off rusty skills and took their fate back into their own hands.

Just as a farming community can't control sun and drought, dealers can’t fight a recession directly. You can’t wrestle the Gross Domestic Product one-on-one, any more than you can tackle the wind.

But a mere incentive program?

“Hah,” dealers snorted. “We can deal with that.”

When a drought-busting storm hits with thunder and lightning that sets buildings on fire, farm communities rally together.

So when clunkers hit like a storm, dealers rang the bell. And from what they told me, everybody in the dealership answered. Suddenly, employees' skills were back in play. They just needed a human-scale adversary.

Intricate, arcane rules on trade-ins? “Oh yeah?” said sales teams. “We’ve dealt with dumber incentives than this.”

Low inventory? “Hey,” said sales managers. “You think this is the first time we had to scrounge units?”

The reimbursement-processing Web site keeps crashing? “Bah,” said back-shop teams. “You’re not as tough as that factory program back in ’06.”

Delayed six-figure reimbursements? “Like I’ve never seen a cash-flow problem,” sneered dealers.

After a year full of grappling with problems too big to get their arms around, clunkers bundled up all the dealers’ frustration and angst into an action-sized package that looked, well, just like a bureaucrat.

“Bureaucrats think they can stop me?” you could almost hear the entrepreneurs roar. “Oh, I am in just the mood for a big ole helping of bureaucrat. Lemme at ’em.”

This fight isn’t over. But dealers are back in the hunt.

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