Revolution in the showroom The CarMax battle: Despite resistance by Md. auto dealer lobby, big changes are coming.

March 12, 1996

"THIS GUY is history," proclaimed a cover story in Business Week last month, showing a caricature of the stereotypical car salesman, complete with garish sports jacket and outstretched palm. "For Used Cars, New Pitches," hailed another takeout in a recent New York Times, the revolution creeping into the auto industry. Low-pressure, consumer-friendly dealerships, bulk discounts for members of warehouse "clubs," and car brokers on the Internet are all making in-roads in auto sales.

"People are realizing there are new choices available," said an analyst with J.D. Power & Associates Inc., the respected auto-industry watcher. "They are not going to want to buy cars the same way again."

With that backdrop, the fight going on in Annapolis to block CarMax, one of these new trendsetters, from entering Maryland would seem destined to fail. New tacks in car-shopping are coming, whether Maryland dealers, as a group, want to acknowledge them or not. Efforts to keep CarMax's seven-day-a-week operation from opening on the former Freestate harness track in Howard County's Savage is akin to the corner hardware store trying to stave off Home Depot or the milkman fighting to keep out another 7-Eleven. Actually, the mom-and-pop hardware store and milkman were regarded as consumer-friendly operators who lost out in a changing culture nevertheless; operations such as CarMax (owned by Circuit City) (owned by Blockbuster Video founder H. Wayne Huizenga) are growing because, with computer kiosks, child playrooms and even coffee bars, they seek to improve on a shopping experience many consumers abhor.

There is no sane reason for the legislature to retain the "blue law" restriction that would keep CarMax out of Howard. Sunday sales have not undermined dealers in Montgomery or Prince George's counties, where Sunday has been a day of trade for a decade. In fact, competitors near a CarMax in Richmond, Va. told The Sun's Ivan Penn that CarMax's marketing prowess raised the level of traffic for all dealers.

Maryland can get in on the ground level of a trend that consumers increasingly desire and that will create at least 300 jobs -- or it can accede to a Jurassic point of view that, regardless of transformations sweeping retailing, the car business will not change, no way, no how.

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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