Is it time for auto dealership blue laws to hit the road?

Posted Sunday, Mar. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Sean Willeford remembers going into stores on Sundays and seeing covers draped over tools, knives and other items that couldn't be bought that day.

Those covers -- and the blue laws that prevented certain purchases on Sundays -- are long gone for the most part.

But Willeford and others are frustrated by one of the few remaining restrictions -- the ban on car dealerships being open on both Saturday and Sunday.

"From a societal standpoint, it's ludicrous," said Willeford, 43, of Arlington, who was shopping for cars recently. "I can buy almost anything I want on a Sunday except for a car. It's really an inconvenience more than anything."

A state lawmaker proposed changing the law to retire the aging requirement that car dealerships keep their doors closed one day each weekend.

But his plan, which has drawn opposition from car dealers statewide, is expected to quietly fade away, especially since the dealer who initially asked about lifting the restriction is no longer interested.

"He had changed his mind," said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands. "If no one in my area wants it, then it's not worth supporting.

"Personally, I'm not in favor of blue laws, but you need broad support to pass legislation in Texas."

The broad support that has come forward has been from car dealers, who say they'd like the law to remain.

Keeping a business open seven days a week boosts expenses, they say, and studies show that dealers wouldn't necessarily sell more vehicles if they were open Sundays.

"We have pushed to stay under" the blue law, said Mac Churchill of Mac Churchill Acura in Fort Worth. "Most of us are individuals working six days a week, working dawn to dusk.

"This gives us one day off a week," he said. "If the blue law didn't exist, we'd have to be open."

The history

Blue laws in some areas date to the early 1600s and required people to attend church on Sundays.

Through the years, laws evolved to ensure that Sunday remained a day of worship or rest.

By 1961 in Texas, 42 items ranging from nails to knives -- even household items such as pans, pots and washing machines -- were banned from being sold on both Saturday and Sunday.

Many of those rules were repealed in 1985.

But today, blue laws remain that prevent sales at liquor stores on Sundays and vehicle sales on consecutive weekend days.

And the car rule is just fine with auto dealers.

"We had an opportunity to visit with the lawmaker who filed the bill, to show we are in support of the blue laws pertaining to" auto sales, said Danny Langfield, deputy director of the Round Rock-based Texas Independent Automobile Dealers Association. "This is protection for the smaller mom and pop store that can't staff the store seven days a week and still give employees a day off."

Toth, he said, "was certainly very gracious. He was very willing to listen to our concerns."

Family time?

The blue law lets dealerships pick which weekend day they would rather be open. Most choose to work Saturday and close Sunday.

That, Churchill said, gives shoppers one day to browse car lots on their own and get an idea of what they want.

The rest of the week, employees at car dealerships work long hours.

"We are open until late at night, certainly accommodating everyone we can, six nights a week," Churchill said. "We are open until 8 p.m. officially, but, like anyone else, if someone is here buying a car, we might stay open until 11 p.m. or midnight."

Keeping dealerships open a seventh day could end up costing customers, said David Bakke, editor at Money Crashers Personal Finance.

"If a dealership had to absorb increased payroll and other operational costs associated with opening seven days a week, those costs could be passed on to the consumer," he said.

Willeford said he knows that people in the business work long and hard -- maybe 70 to 90 hours a week.

And he's glad that they can have some time at home with their family.

He said he used to walk lots on Sundays and look at cars because "you didn't have to worry about the vultures." But now that many dealerships have added barricades and other barriers, it's harder to park his car in a safe spot to browse.

"In the grand scheme of things, I don't care," Willeford said.

"But when I'm actively looking for a vehicle and I don't want to be up there late at night ... it would be a lot more convenient if I could go to dealerships on Sundays."

Ahmed Belmashkan, president and general manager of the new Rio Grande Motors in Fort Worth, said he supports keeping the blue law in place.

"It does not hurt my business to be closed one day. In fact, it helps keep me more focused," he said. "Often, Americans are said to 'live to work while others work to live.'

"I would encourage dealers to use the day off for quality time with family, especially if both parents work."

Legislative moves

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said he understands why car dealers don't want their workdays to change.

"Anyone who has ever had to manage a workforce on a seven-day workweek, it adds that many more problems and issues," he said. "I understand why most auto dealers are opposed to having sales on Sundays. If one opens, they all have to open. No one wants to lose any business.

"It's kind of a 'don't compete' agreement among the dealers."

Toth filed House Bill 759, an effort to do away with the law, in late January. By mid-February, it had been referred to the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee.

And that is likely where the bill will stay until the legislative session ends May 27.

"Some have said that the greatest thing about Texas is that the legislative process is such that it makes it very difficult to create law. So if it's not supported, it dies a quick death," Toth said.

Sherri Plata, a Fort Worth woman who was car-shopping recently, said she didn't know that most dealers are closed Sundays -- or why.

But to her, it didn't really matter.

"It's no big deal," she said. "I'd probably look on Saturdays because Sundays are for family."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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