Auto sales coming backafter attacks

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Published: October 8,2001

There are 1,700 independent automobile dealers in Mississippi, and Gene Simmons, president of the Mississippi Independent Automobile Dealers Association, guesses he has heard from about 1,600 in the weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“I don’t have the answer,” Simmons said, when asked what it would take to bring people back to car lots to buy new and used vehicles. “I would assume the American buying public is aware that we could be at a total war here. I think the public is being smart right now to wait and see, even though I’m in the business of selling cars.”

Simmons said it is important in the wake of the attacks to not be as aggressive in buying. He said that with the way the economy is now, one day one might have a job and the next it may be gone.

“And you’d never think it would affect Brookhaven but it certainly has,” Simmons said of the attacks. “There’s never a break in the traffic, but the day after this occurred, this boulevard looked like a ghost town.”

Bobby Gray, president and CEO of Gray-Daniels of Mississippi and CEO of Asbury Automotive Group’s Jackson platform, said since the attacks on Sept. 11, it seems people have been more focused on what is happening in the world than on buying new and used vehicles. He estimated sales were off as much as 50% the first week after the attacks. But lately, things seem to be turning around.

Still, at least for the meantime, Ford has come back with a 0% interest rate for 36 months on all cars, which has boosted some people’s buying thoughts, Gray said.

“That seems to be working real well for us,” he said.

Other stores in the Jackson platform, including the Toyota and Nissan stores, are doing well too, Gray said. But the Mazda, Hyundai, Isuzu and Mitsubishi sales are still a little off.

“Some of those don’t have strong incentives,” Gray said.

This is the first time in Ford’s history that the company has offered 0% interest for 36 months on all cars. Ford is also offering 2.9% interest for 60 months on trucks and 0.9% for 48 months.

“It’s a buyer’s market right now,” Gray said. “My honest belief is instead of people like GM and Ford closing assembly plants, they’re selling automobiles. In their minds, they feel if they (have strong) incentives, they won’t close plants or lay employees off.

“We’re going to keep Americans working, keep employment where it needs to be and keep stronger incentives. I think that’s a strong statement for General Motors and Ford Motor Company to come where it is today. A lot of places would have closed plants and laid off workers.”

In addition to the incentives offered by Gray-Daniels, the dealer, along with Asbury Automotive, gave $500,000 to the American Red Cross recently to help with disaster relief efforts.

Ricky Lee, general manager at Patty Peck Honda in Ridgeland, expects business to be off around 20% at month’s end.

“In those first few days we were probably off about 55% or 60%,” Lee said.

But, Lee said, the American society is a resilient one. “Over the long run, it should be a minimal decline,” he said. “I think we’ll see it starting back in October. It may not rebound to a June or July or August level, but it’ll come back.”

Lee said Honda has not announced any incentive program yet, but said there is special financing on the remainder of the 2001 models.

Alan Wilson, owner of Howard Wilson Chrysler Jeep, agreed with Gray that after the disaster, people had things on their minds other than buying cars.

“But we’ve seen it pick back up,” Wilson said. “It’s really come back.”

Like Ford, Wilson said the incentives on new vehicles are incredible now at his dealership. He said overall, his dealership has been doing quite well.

“This year has been the best year in our dealership history and we’ve been in business 22 years,” he said. “Even before the attack in New York people were talking about how soft it (the economy) was. Even if it’s (sales are) off a few percent, it’s off a few percent from a very robust level.”

Alton Pierce, with Toyota of Hattiesburg, said everything has been going along pretty well from his standpoint.

“There have been a few days where we did stop, but people are still buying cars, so things are looking pretty strong,” Pierce said.

Wilson said, “We’re coming off all-time record years. You can’t sustain that pace for years. It’s the cyclical nature of our economy.”

Wilson said America will never be a “recession-proof nation.” But, he said, he does expect to see a strong economy in the early to mid part of next year.

“There’s plenty of gloom and doom out there but I think the fundamentals are still in place; I think people are still wanting to buy. Credit is real cheap right now and I think everything’s in place to see it turn around. You don’t like to see this happen, but the fundamentals are still strong and we’ll get past this.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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