Dealers have clout.
Though many of them express a feeling of helplessness, the truth is we are the gatekeepers to so many things in the car business.
There is a link between what dealers stock and what the public drives. By their inventory choices today, retailers set in motion what rolls down our highways, connecting everything from a manufacturer's success on Wall Street to our national energy needs and our personal transportation debts.
America drives what we provide, and in direct proportion to the numbers we provide it. Sadly, it's been through our choices, not happenstance, that our roads are filled with fuel-inefficient behemoths driving us deeper into fossil-fuel dependence.
Our response to an overflowing inventory of guzzlers is how manufacturers have become pushers of the belief that bigger and bigger is what the public needs regardless of fuel consequences.
Truth be known, trucks barreling down highways without cargo and but a lone occupant are as much a matter of the driver's true appetite as his high cholesterol is about a love of greasy fried food. Drivers, like diners, overwhelmingly eat what is served.
Many Americans drive what is pitched to them as affordable. Often the decision has much less to do with thoughts of off-roading, a fashion statement or horsepower, than Madison Avenue marketers want to sell us. Far more influential are selling tactics and financial structuring.
As American lenders and manufacturers went dizzy with pushing volume, and our government filled the national cash register with fuel-tax dollars, we blithely bought into the idea that energy costs just weren't important. An abundance of cheap gas didn't hurt either.
Add to that a good measure of subprime financing and refinancing, plus some obscene Wall Street bonuses, and it's easy to see how we got where we are.
Historically what has doomed dealers to a reputation as thieves and hucksters and forced the public to petrochemical slavery has been a “take what you can get today and don't look back” mentality.
With SUVs gushing out of our manufacturing pipelines, dealer overstocking, and easy financing, the public was directly in the cross hairs of auto makers' guns for quick profits, and we popped them off like sitting ducks.
Happily, today's dealers and customers are pushing back because they have reached their limit, or their senses.
There's a new buzz about alternative energy, gas-stingy drivetrains, hybrid-electric vehicles, small 4-cyl. engines and all sorts of possibilities that just a few months back were considered unacceptable.
Dealers and drivers are finally saying “no” to excess that represents unhealthy choices. We're doing what's good for us. Lost wages and $120-a-barrel oil are giving dealers and customers far more backbone and a much more educated eye when it comes to what we'll deal.
Moreover, banks and dealers are demanding real customers, with real down payments and the real ability to handle the financial responsibility of a vehicle full term.
Pushing bad cars on tough credit customers is no longer acceptable. The car and the buyer must match. Banks won't allow it any other way.
And dealers have had enough of the residual unwind. Both lenders and retailers are recognizing that future losses are a cancer that can't be pushed aside.
Faltering residuals and failing subprime loans have come home to roost. Manufacturers are finding it impossible to get by them with threats or cheap incentives. We are saying “no” to the devil we know for the first time and our future is brighter for it.
As we face a weakened dollar, expensive oil, rising facility costs, drooping consumer demand, and stalled and shocked lenders, many among us are reacting as if we've reached our darkest moment.
The savvier among us recognize the doorstep of hope, and taking back control of the retail car business we once loved.
Peter Brandow is a veteran dealer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
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