GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — When locals leave church on Sunday mornings, some will head for Sunday brunch at their favorite restaurant. Others will eat at home, stop by the pharmacy or even hit the mall.
But one thing they won’t do is buy a car.
A 56-year-old Michigan blue law forbids Sunday car sales in counties with more than 130,000 people; it’s one of 13 states that prohibit auto sales on Sundays.
The legislation passed when the Chevy Bel-Air, the Nash Rambler Country Club sedan and the Ford Crestline Victoria all rolled through town. If the law sounds as rusty as that Rambler would be today, its wording won’t dissuade you:
“It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to engage in the business of buying, selling, trading or exchanging new, used or second-hand motor vehicles or offering to buy, sell, trade or exchange, or participate in the negotiation thereof, or attempt to buy, sell, trade or exchange any motor vehicle or interest therein, or of any written instrument pertaining thereto, on the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday.”
Fast forward to 2009.
Does it make sense now, amid an automotive depression, to darken dealerships on a day when most potential buyers are free? And should dealers be forced by law to stay closed when sales are so badly needed?
“Growing up here, from the religious side, it’s tough,” said Dan DeVos, who owns DP Fox and its 17 dealerships around the state. “When I was young, nothing was open. But lifestyles and things have changed so much since then.
“It would be logical, for so many reasons, for the law to be lifted.”
Although the Cash for Clunkers program bumped up new car sales in recent weeks, the auto industry is still setting its sights low for 2009. Car sales are on pace to require just 9.5 million vehicles this year; that’s 40 percent below the 16 million built just a few years ago.
New car dealers are also becoming fewer and farther between. In their quick-rinse bankruptcies this spring, both Chrysler and GM cast off dealerships and brands.
More than 700 new car dealers in the state are represented by Michigan’s Automobile Dealers Association (MADA), a trade group that supports the never-on-Sunday blue law.
“Some dealers have tried this and it didn’t work,” said Terry Burns, executive vice president of MADA. “It’s difficult to staff a seven-day operation.”
The 1953 law only affects the state’s larger counties, but for 400 dealers in smaller Michigan counties, the Sunday option still holds little allure, he said.
“It’s a combination of morale, employee structure, ability to develop relationships with customers. It’s also the inability to finance the deal,” Burns said.
Many dealers say they like the never-on-Sunday schedule, but the controversy unlocks plenty of opinion:
- Pro: Dealers are people, too, and they like to have a weekend day with their families.
- Con: On most fronts, Sunday has become less sacred (think soccer practice, the NFL season, buying beer). Many businesses say the Christian Sabbath is actually their busiest.
- Pro: Auto insurance offices and banks are closed, so deals can’t be finalized.
- Con: People can already shop for cars online 24/7. Auto insurance and loan providers will surely adjust if the Sunday market merits it.
- Pro: With sales down, dealerships already struggle to make ends meet: staying open another day will boost costs.
- Con: Dealerships could close on a traditionally slow weekday and sell cars on Sunday, when the most people have the most free time.
Michigan is one of a baker’s dozen nationwide to bar Sunday car sales. Others are Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
In Ann Arbor, auto analyst David Cole said he was neutral on the Sunday opening issue.
“Ultimately, the market’s going to rule on this kind of thing,” Cole said.
DeVos said there aren’t any quick fixes.
“Everybody would like to work 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, but that’s just not the way it works, generally speaking,” DeVos said. “It would be difficult from an operational viewpoint, but from a free market side? The free market is going to find a way to deal.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Bauer writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids,