Imports Ride High in Washington

Foreign Brands Account for Two -Thirds of New Car Purchases in Washington, D.C. and Nearby Suburbs

The imbalance of domestic and foreign automobile sales in the Metropolitan Washington area is even more lopsided than the national average, according to the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association.

Gerard Murphy, president of the dealers association, said two of three new vehicles sold in the Washington area are manufactured by a foreign brand. Nationally, about half of new automobiles purchased are imports.

“The import penetration here has been higher than it has on average in America,” said Murphy.

The disparity holds consistent with the slumping sales of domestic automakers such as Ford, which has recorded sales of $74.8 billion in the first half of 2006, nearly a 4.3 percent drop from the same period of 2005.

But not all auto dealerships that sell domestic vehicles in the region have felt the effects of the auto market’s sales trend. Grady Buckmaster, sales manager at Ron Bortnick Ford in Upper Marlboro, Md., says January was one of the dealership’s best-selling months ever.

“There are certain dealers that may be struggling as far as selling cars but our dealership had one of its best months in a long time,” said Buckmaster, an employee of eight years.

Buckmaster attributes his dealership’s success to its focus on past customers.

“Repeat customers are a huge part of our business,” he said, “especially because we’re not a chain dealer. We’re just a family-owned and operated store. We run direct mail sales a couple of times a month, targeting specific customers that have done business at our dealership in the past, so it generates a lot of traffic.”

At other dealerships, however, the success is not across-the -board.

“It is not the best time for the dealers, but as an individual salesperson I had my best year last year,” said Tom Ross, the top-selling salesperson at Ted Britt Ford in Fairfax, Va., “But it’s slower than it ever has been.”

Ross, who sold close to 300 vehicles in only 120 workdays last year, says customer service is the key to his success. He said he has been at the dealership 13 years. Ross said sales have gradually declined at the dealership every year since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In 1999, the dealership was averaging over 400 automobile sales per month. Today, fewer than 200 cars drive off the lot every month.

Conversely, Toyota continues to rake in the sales in the United States. In a recent press release, the Japanese automaker reported its best-ever February sales of 187,330 vehicles, an increase of 12.2 percent over February 2006 numbers.

“Toyota is on a roll right now,” said Robin Nye, sales consultant at Toyota of Bowie in Maryland, adding that his dealership’s 2006 sales increased 30 percent from the prior year.

“When the foreign carmakers came to America, in order to get customers to buy from them they had to be better [than domestic automakers],” Nye said. “But now it’s gotten to the point where the quality is good and they have the reputation… so what happened is things started snowballing in reverse.

“In almost every category you measure of car, if [foreign automakers] are not top they’re near the top,” he continued. “The pendulum has swung.”

Business continues to flow at Ron Bortnick Ford, but when sales aren’t as sunny Buckmaster knows how to keep on trucking.

“You’ve just got to be in an upbeat mood,” he said. “You can’t let the customer or the future prospective buyers see the dealership with our heads down.”