Jim Sterk never thought he would be servicing old, high-mileage cars. After all, he runs a new-car dealership.
But now, Sterk, general manager of Lithia Ford of Boise in Idaho, not only regularly repairs cars with 80,000 miles or more; he courts the business.
"We were not into that business," he says. "Now I wish I had more."
The sluggish economy and persistent high unemployment have caused vehicle owners to hang on to their cars longer. The National Automobile Dealers Association estimates the average light-vehicle age at over 10 years.
Many consumers are looking for inexpensive used vehicles to stay within their budget. Or they want a low-cost second car for another family member. And dealers say they need to offset the erosion in warranty business that has occurred as new vehicles have improved.
So to keep their shops busy and to retain high-mileage customers, some dealers' service departments are competing aggressively with aftermarket shops.
"The whole thing is about customer retention," says Dave Romstedt, service and parts director of Olathe Ford in Olathe, Kan., whose store pitches vehicles with 100,000 miles or more as "Budget" cars.
"Some of these people have been through financial hardships and need an inexpensive car," Romstedt says. "Let's treat them right, do their service for them. In two or three years those people will be financially healthy -- and guess who they're going to think of when they need another car?"