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Delta auto dealers: working to keep sales at home

For the last several years, Delta auto dealers have reported steady to stellar sales, depending on the market — and the competition.

“Some Delta auto dealers are doing better than others because the pie is only so big,” said Alan Hammons, president and CEO of Hammons & Associates Advertising in Greenwood. “And when you consider the pie in the Mississippi Delta, it’s been slowly shrinking because of a declining population in many counties. With the attrition of some dealers, that’s helped to some degree.”

But Tom Wadler, owner of Tom Wadler Automotive Group in Greenville, insists it’s just the opposite.

“I think the pie’s about to grow because people like Nissan have just invested and plants are coming up here,” he said. “I look at the glass as half-full, not half-empty. It’s all in the way you perceive it.”

Longtime Delta auto industry veterans are accustomed to watching cyclical market trends and patiently waiting for an uptick.

“We’ve seen fruit basket turnover with a number of Delta car dealers throughout the years,” said Hammons. “The stability of ownership and good quality services keeps us in good stead with customers.”

Perry England, president and general manager of England Motor Co. in Greenville, a family dealership established in 1926, said about a dozen Delta dealerships have closed in as many years.

“People may fall for gimmicks the first time, but you don’t get people back by doing that,” he said. “They finally figure out what’s going on and that’s what ends the deal with them. You get people by being straight up with them and treating them right.”

Wadler, a New York native who lived in Jackson for a dozen years and managed two Mark Escude dealerships before they were sold to Gray-Daniels, has opened three dealerships with five franchises in the Delta in the last three years. His aggressive marketing tactics, however, have roiled Delta waters.

“The market’s been sleeping in the Delta for the last 25 years,” he said. “It’s about time it woke up and we kept the money here.”

After reviewing Motor Vehicle reports that showed a significant number of cars were being sold in Jackson to Delta customers, Wadler decided to head north.

“When I ran the stores in Jackson, I’d come in at 8 a.m. and work until 10 p.m. and invariably, I’d get people in from the Delta who wanted to buy a car around 7 p.m. during the week or on Saturday afternoons,” he said. “I’d ask them why they didn’t buy a car in the Delta. They told me that by the time they got to the dealership after work, it would be closed. If it was open, they couldn’t get a good deal because it was the only franchise in town. I knew if I could conquer two obstacles — keeping the doors open till 8 p.m. every night until the customer leaves, including Saturday, and providing the same sales and service as a Memphis, Jackson or Little Rock dealer — I could do well in the Delta. And business has been great.”

Wadler said he markets heavily because “auto dealers are no different than supermarkets.”

“How will the customer know the latest information — factory rebates, customer cash, dealer incentives — if you don’t advertise? How will they know we’re open late? Every commercial of ours on the radio says, ‘for your shopping convenience, we’re open until 8 o’clock.’ If I don’t tell people that, they’ll think it’s the old Delta where the dealers close at two o’clock on Saturday and five o’clock during the week so they go back to Jackson. I’m trying to prevent that. About $200,000 a month goes to sales tax. Why should it leave the Delta?”

James A. “Buddy” Jones, owner/president of Buddy Jones Ford Lincoln Mercury and Chrysler Dodge Jeep Eagle of Greenwood, past president of the local chamber of commerce and past president of MADA, said aggressive sales tactics haven’t worked well long term in rural communities.

“We’re in a funny business,” said Jones. “If customers are high-pressured in Jackson, they think nothing of it. But if I high-pressured them, they’d tell everyone and people wouldn’t believe we treated them that way. Sometimes, they’ll buy a car in Jackson and bring it to me to service it and want me to loan them a car while I do. Then reality kicks in. While being competitive, I obviously have to take care of the people that take care of me.”

Ed Kossman of Kossman’s Inc. in Cleveland, past president of the Mississippi Auto Dealers Association and a Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission commissioner, said Wadler has brought some new and innovative marketing ideas to the Delta.

“Sure, he dominates advertising, but his advertising has helped all of us car dealers in the Delta,” he said.

Last year was a banner sales year for Kossman’s dealership, which has been a family business since 1917, Kossman said.

“Last year, we experienced the best year in the history of our business and we don’t know why,” he said. “We didn’t change advertising. We didn’t change lines.”

In 2001, sales were so-so at Kossman’s Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep dealership in Cleveland, which opened last year under management of Kossman’s son, Ed Kossman III.

“But this year, it’s doing good,” he said. “And our GM store is on target with last year’s outstanding numbers.”

England said his two best sales years were in 1998 and 1999.

“The millennium hasn’t done us any favors,” he said, with a laugh. “2000 was so-so. 2001 was better. 2002 is floating along about the same. I keep thinking month to month it’s going to break loose. It hasn’t done it yet, but I feel good about the future.”

Jones called 1999 one of his best years, but said 2000 was “pretty tough.”

“Last year, we had a decent year, but not a normal year,” he said. “It was off a little bit. This year has been down for me.”

The farm economy hurt the Delta tremendously, Jones said.

“This new farm bill looks like a good one, but its impact is further out,” he said. “It probably won’t be felt until next year.”

The recession seems to have hit the Delta a little later than other places, Jones said.

“I like to see everyone do good, even my competition,” he said. “Normally, when one does good, we all do good.”

Zero percent financing was a blessing last fall, said England.

“After 9/11, it was a ghost town,” he said. “Then zero percent financing gave us a couple of pretty good months, even though it did take a little business from the springtime.”

The dealership’s parts and service department and body shop division has been very busy, said England.

“It’s carried the load for us for the past six months,” he said.

Delta auto dealers don’t seem too concerned about the issuance of a license to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians for Frontier Ford in Carthage, located approximately 80 miles from Greenwood and 125 miles from Cleveland. MADA has said the dealership would give the tribe an unfair advantage because the Choctaws are not required to pay state or federal income taxes. Choctaws Chief Phillip Martin has agreed in writing to pay state sales taxes and local property taxes. There has also been concern that the tribe will request “reservation-based” status for the Carthage property. If granted, they would be exempt from property taxes. Earlier this month, the commission voted to allow the license issuance, granted earlier this year, to stand.

“I
’ve been heavily involved with that from the get-go,” said Kossman. “Our hands were tied to a certain respect and I think we worked out a good compromise. We can pull their license if they don’t abide by the agreement. But they still have a big advantage.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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