DONNA HARRIS

Conquest sales? I don't think so

Donna Harris covers automotive retailing for Automotive News.

Lithia Motors Inc., the nation's ninth-largest dealership group, is heavily into domestic-brand stores. So earlier this year, the publicly held retailer figured shortages of Asian makes after the Japanese earthquake might lead to big sales gains for Chrysler, Ford and GM dealerships.

Now that some of the results are in, though, it's clear that those conquest sales didn't happen any more than normal. "There's always a little switching back and forth," Lithia President Bryan DeBoer says.

Lithia and other dealership groups reached the same conclusion: Import buyers are pretty brand loyal. They say most consumers intending to buy Toyotas and Hondas seem to be sticking with those brands rather than defecting to other makes when the car they want is not in stock.

Tony Schnurr is president of the auto division at Larry H. Miller Group of Cos., which has several Toyota and Honda stores, as well as some domestic-brand dealerships. He says sales at those domestic-brand stores are picking up, but on their own merit.

And Sonic Automotive Inc., the nation's third-largest dealership group, rolled out a pricing experiment at 15 Honda stores before the shortages hit in the summer. Unit sales were up 26 percent since the pricing program was launched in February, said Jeff Dyke, Sonic's executive vice president of operations.

Not only are customers unwilling to switch vehicle lines, they're coming back to Sonic when the vehicles are available. He doesn't have specifics, but Dyke says those stores are taking lots of deposits.

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