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Car dealers are battling for service business


DETROIT -- With auto sales stuck in the cellar, new-car dealers nationwide are marketing their service departments to bolster their bottom lines.

The battle for the service dollar is creating some rifts within the LTC industry. For years, the corner garage was the primary supplier of car service, until dealers began to chip away at its business. That has caused some neighborhood spitting matches.

"Garages and dealers are competing for a smaller and smaller business base," said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. "They're at each other's throats."

In 1990, dealers grabbed 21 percent of the $107.3 billion spent on parts and service, up from 17 percent in 1980, according to the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association. Their take is expected to reach 24 percent by 1995.

The back-alley brawl centers on training, hence the "service technician" titles at many dealerships. To lure customers, new-car dealers are stressing the experience of their repair crews' experience.

Ford launched an ad campaign last fall with the tag line "It May Be Your Car But It's Still Our Baby." The implication: No one knows how to fix a Ford better than a Ford-trained technician.

"Mechanics could fix cars by the seat of their pants 20 years

ago," said Jim Carey, Ford's parts and service marketing manager. "But with the complexity of vehicles now, car owners should take their cars to the dealership, where the technicians are trained by Ford."

The Big Three regularly ship bulletins to their dealers with instructions on how to make certain repairs. In years past, dealers freely shared this information with local garages, but that appears to be changing.

For example, technicians at Tamaroff Dodge, in suburban Southfield, complain that their counterparts from a competing store sometimes show up at their service bays and ask for instructions. When that happens, the Tamaroff crew gives them the boot.

"Why should we help them?" asks Jeff Richardson, 25, a Tamaroff technician. "We're competing for the same business."

Meanwhile, dealers are more aggressively marketing parts and services.

For example, Gene Vyletel, a Buick-Isuzu-Volkswagen dealer in suburban Sterling Heights, regularly uses coupons and direct mail to increase parts and service traffic. Some dealers have added evening and weekend service hours.

The guys down at the corner garage aren't happy about the competition from dealers and are countering with their own campaigns. Most stress price and speed.

"There's no advantage of taking your car to a dealer vs. taking it to us," said Pat Johnson, incentive sales manager for Goodyear Tire & Rubber in suburban Warren. "We're cheaper and we have nationwide parts warranties. We even use the same equipment."

Though dealers are boosting their parts sales, some independents don't appear to be sweating.

"I don't think dealers are stealing business from us," said Bill Muncy, who owns a garage in Ann Arbor that bears his name. "The smart dealer knows there's a place for the independent garage in the market. He can't possibly service all these cars himself."

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