Sunday car sales spark dispute Circuit City division seeks change in law for 7-day auto store

February 19, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Car wars '96 is being fought in Howard County. But like most regional conflicts, there is a good chance that the fighting will spill over into the rest of the state.

The clash arose from a plan by Circuit City Stores Inc., a retailer better known for marketing televisions and stereos, to open one of its giant CarMax used car stores at the old Freestate race course just south of Savage.

That alone is a threat to neighboring auto dealers, who are seeing an increasingly larger share of their profits derive from sales of used rather than new cars.

But Circuit City's CarMax division is moving on another front to gain a strategic advantage: It wants the General Assembly to change the law to allow auto dealers to open on Sundays.

"Ninety percent of the dealers in Maryland don't want to open on Sunday," said Joseph P. Carroll, executive director of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, a trade group representing 320 of the approximately 350 car dealerships in the state.

And that includes the majority of new car dealers in Howard County, he said.

Mr. Carroll says that CarMax's move, which has the backing of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, puts the trade association in an extremely sensitive position.

"We have no problem with CarMax coming to town," Mr. Carroll said. "Dealers are willing to compete with them. But we are opposed to a change in the law because most dealers don't think it will be economically viable for them to be open seven days a week."

Currently, only car dealers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties are allowed to remain open on Sundays.

Mr. Carroll said association members feel that changing the law in Howard County will eventually force all the dealers in the state to open on Sunday to remain competitive.

Dealers who favor repeal of the state's so-called "blue laws" say times are changing and busy car shoppers need an extra day.

Circuit City began changing the nature of the used car business in 1993 when it opened the first of its used car superstores -- a 500-car facility where touch-screen computers are used to match customers with cars at a fixed price -- on a 12-acre site near Richmond, Va., to little fanfare.

The company now has four CarMax stores, two in the Atlanta area and one in Raleigh, N.C.; a fifth store is scheduled to open in Charlotte, N.C. Last month, the company announced plans to go nationwide.

Paul Rakov, a spokesman for Circuit City, said the company needs seven-day-a-week sales at the proposed Howard County store to be competitive with dealers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties as well as those in Northern Virginia., noting that all CarMax stores there are open on Sunday.

Mr. Rakov said a company survey of consumers in the Washington area, including Howard County, found "Sunday was the second most preferred day for shopping for big-ticket items, including cars." Saturday is the first choice.

John W. Miller, owner of Miller Bros. Chevrolet-Geo in Ellicott City, is one of the dealers opposed to changing the law. But his biggest beef, he says, is that lawmakers didn't consult with the dealers before moving to open the county to Sunday car buying.

Mr. Miller said it does not make economic sense for new car dealers to open on Sunday. Sunday openings, he said, would increase his dealership's overhead and make it less profitable.

"The pie is only so big. You're only going to sell X number of cars whether you're open six days a week or seven," he said.

"It also becomes a quality of life issue," Mr. Miller said. "In today's society, I think people want more time to spend with their family and to go to church.

"And I haven't heard any big outcry from consumers for car dealers to be open on Sunday."

"We would welcome CarMax here," he said, "but under the terms of the way we do business."

Jacob Antwerpen, owner of three new car dealerships, including a Toyota outlet in Clarksville, said he favors Sunday openings.

"There was a time when I would lock the door of my dealership at 9 o'clock and go home," Mr. Antwerpen said, "but not any more."

"We have people coming in the door at 9 and we are frequently open until midnight or 1 a.m. People need more time, especially for buying something like a car where the decision usually involves both the husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend."

With both husband and wife working, he said, it is difficult for couples to get the time to go car shopping together.

"I'm an aggressive dealer," Mr. Antwerpen said. "I want all the business I can get. If I could be open around-the-clock, I would.

"I know I've lost sales to Darcar in Montgomery County, which is only about 15 miles away and is open on Sundays.

"I think it would be good for business," he said. "I don't know why dealers are opposed to it."

If Howard County allows dealers to open on Sunday, Mr. Antwerpen said, it would be only a year or two before all dealers in the state would be forced to open seven days a week.

Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said county officials were surprised when CarMax approached them about the law prohibiting Sunday car shopping.

Mr. Story said a change in the law would not force anyone to open on Sunday. It would only give them the choice.

He said that when Montgomery County dealers were exempted from the law about 10 years ago, seven of the nine dealers in the Montgomery Auto Park off of Route 29 opened on Sunday. "Now only two are open," Mr. Story said.

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