CarMax carries Sunday sticker High-tech operation eyes Freestate site, demands 7-day sales


RICHMOND, Va. -- With a high-tech showroom so customer-friendly it includes a playroom stocked with video games and a big-screen TV, CarMax -- the revolutionary used car "superstore" -- is pioneering a new approach to automobile sales.

No colored flags lining the car lot. No leaky cars. No men in plaid jackets haggling with customers over price or pressuring them to buy.

When customers walk into a CarMax store -- such as the 46-acre Howard County outlet planned for the former Freestate racetrack near Savage -- they're greeted by a salesperson who signs them onto a computer they can use to find the car they want.

"I wish I would have thought of it," said Gene Hite, helping a friend find a car at the Richmond CarMax lot last week.

But there's a catch: To make the formula work, CarMax says it needs to sell cars on Sundays -- something Maryland law allows only in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Without such permission, CarMax says it will locate in Northern Virginia instead.

"We're not in any way blackmailing anybody," said W. Austin Ligon, president of CarMax, a subsidiary of Circuit City Stores Inc. "We just need to be able to compete" with Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Yet as CarMax enters the final stage of its fight to win legislative permission for Sunday sales, dealers who oppose the idea are redoubling their efforts to defeat a proposal allowing Sunday sales that already has passed the state Senate.

'Quality-of-life issue'

"We're not against a different type of operation," said Dennis Rasmussen, a lobbyist for the Maryland Coalition Against Sunday Automobile Sales, which claims to represent dealers from around the state. "We just want to know why they can't operate six days a week. It's a quality-of-life issue for many of these dealers."

Both sides are due to collide head-on March 19 when the House Economic Matters Committee takes up the bill, among the most hotly contested measures in this year's General Assembly.

At issue is more than just the ability to buy cars on Sunday, supporters say. With 300 well-paying jobs, they say the operation will help jump-start plans for a retail hub on the more than 100-plus-acre site of the former harness racing track, which has been vacant for six years.

Until CarMax, the Freestate property's developer -- Texas-based Lincoln Properties Co. -- has struggled to land an anchor business for the shopping mall planned there. CarMax officials say the used car operation will help draw other businesses.

"We're pleased to see it move forward," said Bill Waff, president of the Savage Community Association. "There's a few people who would probably want something better. But most everybody I've talked to in town and the association is in favor of it."

An option to the hard-sell

The object of all this debate is a company whose guiding philosophy is nothing less than the overhaul of the used car sales industry. With its customer-friendly approach, CarMax makes an appeal to those who disdain the hard-sell that has long characterized the car industry.

Founded in 1993, CarMax now has stores in Richmond, Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta.

The Richmond store -- CarMax's first and smallest operation -- sports a contemporary gray and white facade with its trademark blue, yellow and white "CarMax" signs. Its outward appearance resembles many new car dealerships that line Richmond's Broad Street, but the resemblance stops there.

The showroom atmosphere combines self-service convenience with low-pressure sales techniques, as the customers are logged onto computers by the sales assistants.

The computer asks customers such questions as the make, model and color of their desired cars, their overall price ranges and their preferred down payments and monthly payments.

Several options are displayed on the computer, and customers can print out their choices. Those printouts include a map of where the cars are located on the lot.

During evenings and weekends, parents can send their children to CarMax's supervised playroom while they shop.

Prices no better, some say

Although many customers on a recent afternoon said the service and selection were the best they had ever seen at a used car lot, some said the prices were not any better than at other dealers they have visited.

"My dad's in the business. They're not that great a deal," said 20-year-old Richmond resident Mark Westbrook, who was browsing on the Richmond lot. "But they do have a lot of choices."

Although other Richmond-area new and used car dealers were worried about the competitive impact of CarMax before it opened, that concern appears to have diminished. Some say they've been able to ride the coattails of CarMax's huge advertising budget.

"Our business has actually gone up," said Wayne Satterwhite, sales manager of Richmond's Haynes Jeep Eagle. "If anything at all, it probably brings more traffic into the area because of the advertising."

Mark S. Giragosian of Richmond's Moore Cadillac Co. echoed Mr. Satterwhite's belief that CarMax has been more help than harm. Neither of those dealerships open on Sundays and don't see a need to, despite CarMax.

"We have never opened on Sunday," Mr. Giragosian said. "That's asking a lot of your sales force."

Yet many Maryland dealers remain worried that competition from CarMax will effectively force them to open Sundays. They say TTC the marginal sales will not offset increased expenses.

Dealers have said their employees already work as much as 72 hours a week. They say the long hours are needed because their employees specialize in selling a particular product -- unlike CarMax salespeople who work shorter shifts like clerks in any other retail store.

CarMax has "twisted it around and made it look like we don't want the competition," said John Miller, co-owner of Miller Brothers Chevrolet in Ellicott City. "We just don't want to open on Sundays."

Mr. Ligon, CarMax's president, has no sympathy for the other dealers' long workweeks. Having employees work 72 hours a week is "inconsistent with all the wage and hour laws," he said. "At CarMax, we all work shifts."

Fierce House fight looms

Although CarMax won its battle in the state Senate on Sunday sales, the fight in the House of Delegates is expected to be fierce.

Local lawmakers, including Del. Shane Pendergrass, the Democrat who represents the Savage area, are pushing hard for passage.

"It's got enormous economic development potential for the county and the state at absolutely no cost to the taxpayers," said Ms. Pendergrass, the only Howard County delegate on the committee that will hear testimony March 19. "I am taking it as my responsibility to help it through my committee."

Still, she conceded, "right now, it's a close vote."

And there remain a few dissenting voices in the Savage community itself.

Toni Johns, who lives about three minutes from the Freestate site, is one of them.

"Who needs 40 acres of used cars?" she asked. "I don't think it's going to be attractive at all."

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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