Dealers, customers lukewarm on idea to lift blue law on 7-day car sales

| Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012

Sheila Wagner has browsed auto lots on Sundays, when Pennsylvania law forbids dealers from opening and making sales.

"That gives you a chance to not be bothered by anybody. You can just look around quietly," said the Wexford resident, who wants to replace her 2002 Ford Explorer with a smaller sport utility vehicle.

Many Pennsylvania auto dealers say they prefer being closed on Sundays because weekday hours are long, holidays are few and an extra weekend selling day might bump up sales slightly, at best.

A state Senate bill that would allow Sunday vehicle sales has stalled since its introduction last March, although Western Pennsylvania motorcycle dealers are pondering whether to open Sundays this spring now that a new state law allows them to sell motorcycles seven days a week.

The difference• "Motorcycle dealers do a lot of events on Sundays, such as cruises, and they have people in their stores for social activities," said John Putzier, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association in O'Hara.

"For auto dealers, there is no real advantage. They're not going to increase their sales volume. They'd just spread it out over seven days instead of six."

Senate sponsors of the current bill to allow Sunday sales, the latest in a series of similar proposals, said their intent is to put the idea out for discussion. Pennsylvania's "prohibitive, farm state-style of doing things" is disappearing, and car shoppers who work on Saturdays or late on weeknights might benefit, said Sen. Michael J. Stack, D-Philadelphia, the bill's prime sponsor.

"I have run into consumers who say yeah, everything should be open on Sundays," Stack said, adding he knows one Philadelphia-area Suzuki and Kia dealer, Gene DeSimone, who has expressed interest in selling cars on Sunday, and others who support the change, but "aren't crazy about it." DeSimone couldn't be reached for comment.

Pennsylvania is among 13 states where traditional "blue laws" to restrict Sunday commerce for religious reasons still prohibit auto sales on that day.

Others are Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Jersey, North Dakota and Wisconsin, according to consumer research website Texas and Utah, in addition, forbid car dealerships from operating on Saturdays or Sundays, and Maryland's restricts Sunday sales to two counties.

Wagner doesn't see the need to force auto sellers to add Sunday hours.

"It's something you can do in the evenings," she said after looking at models at Mick's North Hills Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Ross last week.

Shaunda Miles recently moved to Ross from New York and didn't know about the Sunday sales ban.

Pittsburgh is a traditional town, but not every tradition is worth keeping, she said. "It should be reviewed," she said of the law.

Mick Wolcott, who owns the Ross dealership and one in Robinson, was a sales manager for a Chrysler dealer in Columbus, Ohio, before moving to the Pittsburgh area in 1985. "We were allowed to be open in Ohio, and I sold a lot of cars on Sundays. I was a big proponent when I came here," he said.

But Wolcott said he was "told to keep my mouth shut" by others in the local auto sales industry, and he since has changed his mind because of problems staffing a showroom or service area seven days a week. Mick's dealership is open until 9 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. Saturdays.

"The vast majority of the auto dealers in the state are happy with the current scenario," said Rob Cochran, CEO of #1 Cochran Automotive, the region's largest dealership. "We are open a lot of hours for the customers, and balancing that with a good lifestyle for our people."

Saturday typically is the busiest sales day at the Cochran dealerships in Monroeville, Robinson and Dormont, with sales as much as 50 percent higher than a typical weekday, Cochran said. Weekday evenings are busy in spring and summer, because of longer daylight hours.

And with more customers using the Internet to find cars they like and the dealers that carry them, he said, sales increasingly are being made after customers arranged appointments in the showrooms, versus stop-in visits.

Several Pittsburgh-area dealers say they've extended service and showroom hours in recent years to accommodate customers, with auto maintenance and repair shops typically opening around 7:30 a.m. most days and sales stretching until 9 or 10 p.m. on weeknights.

Allowing Sunday sales, some said, would force them to follow suit if a competitor down the street decided to adopt a seven-day schedule.

Employees at auto dealerships worked an average 37.8 hours a week in November, up 1.3 hours from the same month a year ago, according to the Department of Labor, which said extended sales hours and weekend service are lengthening schedules in the industry.

State Sen. Tim Solobay said he cosponsored Stack's bill out of concern for consumers whose schedules might make car shopping difficult. "Sometimes you throw things out, to get the temperature of what people are thinking," said Solobay, D-Canonsburg.

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, said he's "gotten no calls saying do it, or don't do it," he said of allowing Sunday sales. Fontana cosponsored Stack's bill.

Still, "Myself, I enjoy going to the lots and taking time to look at the vehicles without being bothered," he said.

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