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Automobile sales holding strong for dealers in Hattiesburg

HATTIESBURG — How are rising fuel prices affecting the sale of automobiles in South Mississippi? Dealers in the Hub City report that while customers’ buying habits may be changing a bit, sales are still good and the American love affair with cars is still burning brightly. The sales managers interviewed remain optimistic about their businesses.

All agree that spring and summer are peak months for automobile sales due to vacations, nice weather and kids being out of school. Despite economic concerns, none of them feel that situation will change this year.

As a 30-year veteran, Harry Phillips might be the dean among Hattiesburg dealers. The sales manager at Vardaman Buick and Honda on Broadway Drive, he says the high cost of gasoline is causing some customers to purchase smaller cars that are more fuel-efficient.

“We feel good about that because all our Hondas get great gas mileage, some get 30 miles per gallon,” he said. “They’re really selling, and the only problem we have is getting enough of them.”

He added that his sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are still selling because he has several models that get 25 miles per gallon and more. Phillips said there is some slow down in the sales of Buicks. He believes that’s because customers buying Buicks tend to be older people who may currently have some concerns about declining interest rates on investments.

“If anybody tells you they know what’s slowing it down, they’re lying,” he said. “In 30 years in this business I haven’t been able to figure out what causes the economy to go up and down.”

Phillips said his seasonal sales will hold until about Thanksgiving, but after that time, he “can’t fight Santa Claus.”

At Courtesy Ford on West Pine Street, Win Lightsey has been sales manager for 16 years. Acknowledging that the selling season usually begins in the spring and runs through summer, he said, “Warm weather puts more stress on cars with age and they experience more problems. That makes people start thinking about trading for new cars, especially this hot weather we have in this part of the country.”

He says people will brave the excessive heat to get outside and look at cars. So far, he has not noticed any direct effect on sales from high gas prices.

“If they remain high after summer, we may see things change,” he said. “It usually takes five or six months of high gas prices to see effects.”

Courtesy Ford has been in business over 40 years selling all Ford products and used cars. Lightsey said all the 12 new-car dealers in Hattiesburg work together with the ultimate goal of taking care of customers.

“We’re fortunate to have such a good trade area. It’s a pleasure to work with people here,” he said. “Competition’s always stiff, but we have a good group of dealers.”

He said he and the other dealers are able to provide the same services offered in larger metropolitan areas plus a small town approach and low selling pressure.

After 17 years in the automobile business, Tom Brown moved to Hattiesburg from McComb three months ago to become sales manager at Hattiesburg Toyota, a dealership that’s been around for about 30 years.

“Sales are getting better and better,” he said, “because Toyotas get good gas mileage. It hasn’t affected us at all.”

He says his SUVs are still selling too.

Bryan Mott is sales manager at Hattiesburg Hyundai, formerly J. Martin Auto Sales on West Pine Street. He started out washing cars and has been in the business 20 years.

“Most people I see are real concerned about the price of gas and I think that’s why our sales are picking up,” he said. “We have some real gas savers, like the Santa Fe mid-size SUV. It’s doing well.”

While he feels the state of the economy affects the car business all the time, Mott says business remains good now and that March until October is normally the busiest time of year.

Sam Dossett, sales manager at Dossett Motors, did not even have time to talk by phone on two occasions because he was busy closing a deal with customers buying new cars.

“So far, business is good and fuel prices are not hurting us,” he said of the West Pine Street dealership that sells Cadillacs, Pontiacs and GMC trucks. “It’s not big numbers here but we stay consistent and that’s a good way to be in these times.”

He pointed out that sales are good for the Pontiac Vibe that gets 34 miles per gallon of fuel. Another model currently doing well is the GMC Envoy, a new version of the old Jimmy.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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