Shopping for Car in Detroit? Not on Saturdays : Dealers Who Stay Open Claim Others Are Harassing Them

Times Staff Writer

When Randy Bachman tried to buy a new car here last summer, he quickly found that Detroit's car dealers weren't bending over backwards to make it convenient for him to shop. In fact, Bachman discovered that he had to rearrange his social life just to find the time to look at cars during the few hours that dealer showrooms are open.

Like most people, Bachman, a 34-year-old public relations director at a Detroit hospital, had trouble taking time off work to shop. And since Detroit-area dealers aren't open on weekends or most weeknights, Bachman's opportunities to browse for cars during his free time were severely limited--to be exact, only on Monday and Thursday evenings, when local dealerships stay open until 9 p.m.

"I had to arrange my whole schedule around looking for a car," Bachman complains. "I wanted to make a major purchase, and I had to do it at the convenience of the seller. It was ludicrous." Because of the dealers' limited hours, Bachman adds, his purchase of a new Toyota Corolla took two months longer than he expected.

Ironically, America's Motor City is the only big urban area in the nation where car dealers are closed on Saturdays, Sundays and most weeknights, and most car dealers and their employees here want to keep it that way.

Long-Standing Practice It is a long-standing practice, dating back to the mid-1960s, that has sometimes turned ugly when dealers who try to remain open extra hours are harassed and threatened with violence by area sales people and mechanics who want to make sure that the success of one dealer open on weekends doesn't force others to follow suit.

"They (local car sales people) are prima donnas," says John Cini, co-owner of a suburban American Motors dealership that has frequently been picketed and vandalized since it began opening on Saturdays last fall. Cini adds that his own employees haven't been involved in the protests, but that salesmen from other dealerships have tried to shut him down on Saturdays.

The restricted hours have also embarrassed Detroit-based auto makers, who find themselves in the awkward position of criticizing their hometown dealers.

"I've always thought Detroit was lax in not having dealerships open on Saturdays," General Motors Corp. Chairman Roger B. Smith says. "A car purchase is a big item, and you need to have the time to shop carefully for it, and Saturday is when most people have the time off."

FTC Files Complaint But even though virtually all other retail outlets in the Detroit area are open on Saturdays, consumers have done little but quietly complain about the situation in recent years. Last month, however, that all changed when the Federal Trade Commission filed an antitrust complaint against 105 Detroit-area dealers for allegedly conspiring to close on Saturdays and most weeknights. The agency also alleged that, in an attempt to enforce weekend closing, some dealers were at least indirectly responsible for harassing others that were open on Saturdays.

"There are some cities where some dealers choose to close on weekends while others are open," says Robert Jones, an FTC staff attorney. "But in Detroit, it is obvious . . . that there is something other than market forces at work."

The FTC also alleges that the local Chevrolet, Chrysler-Plymouth and Cadillac dealer associations conspired to limit their advertising on car prices in the Detroit media.

In hearings scheduled to begin next month, the commission plans to ask an administrative law judge to force all Detroit-area new car dealers to remain open on Saturdays for at least one year. (Michigan law prohibits dealers from being open on Sundays, however.)

The FTC also will ask that the Detroit Automobile Dealers Assn. and others representing individual car lines be dissolved to prevent further collusion among area dealers. Jones adds that the FTC plans to present evidence to support its claim that the dealers have been behind at least some of the violence that has been aimed at the handful of dealers over the years who have attempted to remain open on Saturdays.

But most area dealers angrily deny all the FTC allegations, and they argue that the government has no business trying to tell them how many hours they must stay open each week.

"Is the federal government also going to get us up at eight in the morning to do exercises now?" chides Martin McInerney, owner of six Detroit dealerships and the area's best-known dealer. "People are tired of the government telling us what to do."

Daniel Hayes, vice president and director of the 234-member Detroit Automobile Dealers Assn., argues that Saturday closings help keep dealer costs down, and he insists that lower dealership overhead helps make Detroit the cheapest city in America in which to buy a new car.

(A 1983 Hertz survey of average purchase prices for compact cars in 20 large cities showed that Detroit, Houston and Dallas were tied with the lowest prices in the country. Including discounts and local taxes, Detroit's average price of $8,225 was more than 3% below the average of $8,502 in Los Angeles.)

Both McInerney and Hayes also claim that most of the pressure on dealers to remain closed on Saturdays comes from their employees, who see such closings as something of a fringe benefit. One local salesman, David Michels of Highland Park, Mich., recently wrote to the Detroit News to say that he had moved from San Diego to the Detroit area "because, as an automobile salesman, this is the only place in America where I may have a normal life and enjoy some of life's pleasures that the average working person takes for granted."

McInerney says dealers have restricted their hours in order to keep their employees from joining unions, and he complains that the FTC's action has sparked an organizing drive among local sales people by the Teamsters union, which scheduled a meeting with angry sales people last week. "It's a labor problem more than anything else," he says.

Hayes adds that the dealership employees who have harassed dealers open on Saturdays have done so without any backing from area dealers themselves.

"You've got 10,000 dealership employees in this area used to not working Saturdays, and they aren't about to start now," Hayes says.

Still, the fact that almost all of their competitors are closed on Saturdays has turned into a bonanza for the handful of local dealers who remain open. "We get a lot of sales opportunities as a result of being open then," says Tim Sullivan, general manager of Tom Sullivan Volkswagen in suburban Southfield, Mich., which has remained open on Saturdays since 1966, despite repeated incidents of vandalism.

AMC Dealer Cini adds that, since he is the only AMC dealer in town open on Saturdays, weekend customers come from all over to shop at his showroom. Saturday sales now account for 25% of his business. "If everybody was open on Saturdays, I wouldn't gain anything, but now I'm taking sales away from other dealers."

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