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California and the West

Dealing, but No Wheeling

Sales: Many places are open at all hours around Las Vegas, but car dealers close on Sundays. A county ordinance would make sure it stays that way.

July 23, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — It is one of the great paradoxes here: On a Sunday afternoon you can gamble away the mortgage and drink yourself silly. But you can't buy a new car.

It comes as a shock to new residents pouring in from California, where you can go see legendary Southland car huckster Cal Worthington as late as midnight Sunday and drive off with a new set of wheels.

But for as long as anyone can remember, Las Vegas' new-car dealers have been closed on Sundays.

It's a tradition that may become law. At the request of dealers who fear new competitors will skirt the practice, the Clark County Commission will consider an ordinance Aug. 1 to formally ban sales of new cars on Sundays in the unincorporated parts of the county. The city of Las Vegas already blocks such sales on Sundays as a condition of receiving a business permit.

How does a town known for running around the clock reconcile that image with a practice that harks back to old-fashioned blue laws?

Today, dealers in new cars zealously defend their no-Sunday sales practice, saying it allows their staffs to regularly plan days off for praying in church, barbecuing with family or zooming around the lake.

It also gives neighbors of dealerships a reprieve from customers who take cars out for test spins around the block and from the annoying loudspeaker calls for someone to pick up Line 3.

Among the biggest fans of Sunday closures, dealers say, are customers who enjoy browsing through the lots without aggressive sales people breathing down their necks.

"People have a preconceived notion about Las Vegas being wham-bam, going all the time," said Kent Mason, marketing manager for Cashman Cadillac. "It's true we're a 24-hour town for gaming and the hotel industry--but, you know, we're not totally a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week town. Most people who live here live normal lives."

How the practice of sale-less Sundays began is something of a mystery here. Veteran car dealer Ken Marsh said it's been this way since before he got into the business 29 years ago, and he doesn't know its roots. Some speculate that when Las Vegas was just a small town--not that long ago--there were no competitive reasons to sell cars on Sundays, and the dealers agreed to keep it that way.

Marsh said he likes being closed on Sunday--and now that the Las Vegas City Council forces him to be closed on Sundays, he wants the county to pass the law to formally prevent an upstart dealer just outside the city limits from being open that day.

"I want to make sure it remains a level playing field for all of us," he said.

It was at the dealers' request that Clark County Commissioner Erin Kenny introduced the proposed ordinance.

Mom-and-pop used-car dealers were exempted from the law, she said, because they deal in such low traffic volumes and because losing Sunday's business--as light as it might be--could economically crush them.

But the new-car dealers want the Sunday sales ban to protect their tradition and keep new dealers from opening on Sundays and gaining a possible competitive edge, she said.

The only apparent opposition to the law came from the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The freedom to choose one's business hours, the paper editorialized, "used to be the American--and especially the Nevada--way."

The Clark County district attorney's office, which prepared the new county ordinance, found at least two states--Illinois and Minnesota--that ban new-car sales on Sundays. The same is true in Michigan, and in Detroit--Motor City itself--most dealerships also elect to be closed Saturdays as well.

Earlier this year, the Utah state legislature passed a law requiring new-car dealers to be closed either Saturday or Sunday, fashioned after a similar law in Texas.

Mike Farina, the general sales manager at Courtesy Oldsmobile in Las Vegas, unabashedly suggests that being closed on Sundays directly affirms family values.

"You know what happened to the American family? What happened to it was the disintegration of blue laws, and businesses being opened on holidays," he said. "People don't have family values because they don't have family time."

Worthington sees something cynical about Las Vegas dealers being closed on Sundays.

"Being closed on Sundays limits comparative shopping," he said, "so the dealers can get better prices."

The whole argument over hours of operation is becoming increasingly moot, suggested Mike Morrissey, spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers' Assn.

"About 80% of new-car dealers have Web sites, and customers can shop on computer now," he said. "In Vegas, you can work a late show, be wide awake when you get off, go online and shop for a car at 2 in the morning."

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