Autofest sales follow national trend

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Published: June 2,2008

Gasoline got Stanley and Melodee Smith from their Saltillo home to the Tupelo Autofest. That’s the gasoline in the 2005 Dodge Magnum they drove to the semiannual event and the gasoline they want to stop having to buy when they purchase a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

“We’re just looking,” said Stanley as he perused cars offered at the Tupelo Auto Sales temporary lot set up in the sprawling parking area of the Tupelo Furniture Market. The offsite sales promotion lasted 10 days, ending Memorial Day, and comprised three Tupelo dealerships.

“We’re looking at gas mileage,” said Melodee, explaining that the 25 miles-per-gallon in the Magnum wasn’t cutting it anymore since Stanley drives 130 miles daily to work and back.

Salesman Jim Jones showed the couple a four-cylinder Dodge Avenger, whose sticker announced it should get an average or 30 mpg on the highway.

“We’re looking for lower payments and better gas mileage,” Stanley admitted.

The Smiths were among very few car shoppers on the impromptu lot on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day. Jones reported that it had “been a slow market.”

“It was better last year,” he said. Perhaps his inventory was not tantalizing a suddenly gas-conscious customer base as fuel hits $4 a gallon. “I’d like to have some hybrids out here.”

Hoyt Sheffield, owner of Tupelo Auto Sales, helped organize the first Autofest in 1991. Every year at Memorial Day and Labor Day, participating dealers move most of their inventories to the furniture market site and set up temporary sales offices inside the market buildings.

“This is convenient for the shopper,” said Sheffield, whose dealership handles Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep vehicles. He estimated that between the three dealerships, more than 1,000 new and used vehicles were on the lot.

Sheffield said there were “more people passing through than ever before” but whether they were merely kicking tires or actually buying, he didn’t say.

“We expect to sell 100 cars out here,” said Jimmy Long, sales representative for Dossett Big 4. He sat with fellow salesman Jason Clouse under a tent, escaping the hot sun in the lot next door to the Tupelo Auto Sales lot; Dossett sells GMC, Buick, Pontiac and Cadillac, as well as Hondas.

Long noted that the best Autofest Dossett had attended resulted in sales of 125-130 vehicles, so being only a couple dozen off in a car-selling market called the worst in a decade by J.D. Power & Associates is a feat in itself.

“I wish traffic was better,” said Clouse. “It’s lighter than last year.”

Both men agreed that lengthy automobile credit terms are hurting sales. Many customers show up wanting to trade gas guzzlers but owe too much money on them to make a deal. Plus, the market for reselling those gas-guzzling SUVs, pickups, vans and large cars is dwindling fast.

“Their value drops every week,” said Long. He recounted a recent visit by a man who had bought a new 2008 Toyota Tundra full-sized pickup truck a few months ago but was now looking to trade it for a more fuel-efficient vehicle. “The truck had 3,000 miles on it and he had paid $32,000 for it. The Blue Book valued it at $13,500.”

Jayson Volinski, general manager of Varsity Suzuki, reported the same thing at his end of the Autofest, where he figured 25 cars sold would be a good Autofest.

But he was enjoying attention from niche customers. “The ones we’re selling to have another vehicle (that uses much more gas).” Those buyers are getting something cheaper to operate on a daily basis and saving the large car for special occasions.

“Cars like Suzuki are going up in resale value while bigger ones are going down,” said Volinski. But he and his car-selling colleagues acknowledged high gas prices are only now beginning to have much of an effect on the majority of the buying public.

“Everybody wants a seven-passenger Dodge Durango, Chrysler Aspen or Jeep Commander,” Tupelo Auto Sales salesman Ted Sheffield said of vehicle consumers, “but they want the fuel economy of the Dodge Caliber, which gets 22-32 miles per gallon.”

“People are going to have to change,” said Volinski.

Contact MBJ contributing writer C. Richard Cotton at rcotton4@earthlink.com .

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