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A day on the automile

As US auto firms sink, it's a tough time to sell cars

By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / December 14, 2008
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NORWOOD - The day begins with so much promise. Bundles of balloons. Plans for a raffle. Some salesmen at Cadillac Hummer Saab Village of Norwood - and yes, they are all men - even come in on their day off, hoping to sell cars to the expected crowds. Roughly 40,000 mailers have gone out, inviting people to come.

But by midmorning, salesman Robert Deyab is starting to worry. Not only is the dealership not moving many cars - just one by lunchtime - Deyab has spent more than two hours working to get a customer, Lisa Conrad, into a new Cadillac Escalade. And still no sale.

Nothing.

She eyes him, arms crossed, and even leaves at one point, promising to return. But who knows? It's enough to make just about anyone despair, especially Deyab, who lives with his mother and brother in Westwood and for two months running hasn't sold enough cars to earn his bonuses. But the gray-haired, 58-year-old car salesman with nearly two decades experience refuses to get down.

Conrad will buy, Deyab says. And he believes it. He has to. In the face of one of the worst car markets in decades, he and other salespeople are trying to stay positive - stay up, keep smiling - because the alternative would take them to a very dark place.

"You must keep your cool," Deyab says. "You can't fluctuate. You've got to maintain."

There is plenty of pain to go around in the US auto industry right now, but few are hurting more than that smooth-talking, gladhanding, oft-dread ed American peddler: the car salesman.

His base salary can be as low as $150 a week. If he doesn't sell cars and collect his commissions, he can't pay his bills. And right now, he and his colleagues are simply not selling cars. At least not like they used to.

Through November, sales were down 16 percent nationally, according to the Autodata Corporation. Nine hundred dealerships were projected to shutter their showrooms this year, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association, with more 900 expected to close in 2009. And while the shrinking market has helped a few dealers, most are struggling.

Up and down the Automile - a dealer-dotted ribbon of pavement from Westwood to Sharon - showrooms await shoppers. Salespeople stand idle. Traffic is off almost everywhere. And Cadillac Village recently decided to get creative to bring people back.

The managers there wouldn't just offer cars at a discount - as all General Motors dealerships are doing right now - they would hire a Maine-based company, the Wolfington Group, and launch a direct mail campaign. The plan was to lure people into the stores with chances to win prizes in hopes that they might buy a car while there.

"We just want to generate traffic again," says Tim Lerchenfeldt, the dealership's general manager, surveying the showroom on day two of the recent four-day event. "See what people look like walking through the door again."

It's just after 9 a.m. And the salesmen are waiting. There's Frank Melo and Al Piacitelli, veteran associates with thick Rolodexes. There's Deyab, hired three months ago, and Alex Gomes. He's just 24. Ani Mullick, a restaurateur-turned-salesman, is ready for a big day in a blue-striped shirt, and so is Ed McMullin, wearing black fleece.

They make calls. And they wait. They make more calls, drink coffee, eye the door. And still, they wait. But being optimists by nature, the salesmen are sure that people are coming. The proof is all around them.

"It's busy," says Piacitelli. "Look it."

He gestures with his hand across the showroom. There are maybe three customers in the store.

Maybe three.

* * * * *

11:23 a.m.: George and Ruth Bardol come to see if they have won any of the top prizes advertised: a new television, a car, or $25,000. They have not and Machaon Stevens, a member of the marketing group's sales team on site for the day, moves in.

"Follow me," Stevens says. "I want to show you this car."

George, 82, and Ruth, 80, are reluctant to move. But soon George is sitting in, then test-driving, a new "radiant silver" Cadillac CTS, and then he's waiting while Stevens writes up a deal.

"Keep thinking happy thoughts," Stevens says. "I'm going to sell you a Cadillac."

But when he returns with the deal, George is appalled by what the dealer is offering to pay for his 2005 Buick on trade-in.

"You're low-balling me," he says.

"I'm not trying to do that," Stevens replies.

"You already did," George counters.

And just like that, it's over. The Bardols turn and leave.

* * * * *

The dealership, owned by Ray Ciccolo, counts Patriots and Red Sox players among its clientele, and in good times the salesmen can make a fine living. It's possible, Lerchenfeldt says, for the best of them to make six figures.

But business took a hit last spring, Lerchenfeldt says, when fuel prices started rising. Sales, once hovering around 160 cars a month, fell to around 120, he says. Five salesmen were let go, dropping the staff to about 10. And then in November, sales dropped again to about 100 cars a month.

Salesmen who once sold 20 cars a month were now selling closer to 12. And guys who once sold 12 were barely selling eight.

That's a big difference. Salesmen at Cadillac Village don't work on commission, earning a percentage of every sale they make. Rather, they earn bonuses based on customer satisfaction and volume. Move eight cars and you get a bonus. Move 12 and you get an even bigger bonus. And so on. But move less than eight? You go home with only your base salary: $500 a week. About $26,000 a year.

"It's challenging financially," says Melo, a 41-year-old father of three and one of the longest-tenured salesmen in the showroom. "You need so much money to keep your ball rolling nowadays. And when you've had bad month after bad month, you fall behind. It's difficult - and the prospect of it being much better in the future is not good."

The problem is the economy, but also perception. Many customers believe that General Motors - the makers of Cadillac, Hummer, and Saab - is dying. This fear, made worse by the failure of the bailout plan in the US Senate late last week, starts to feed on itself, salesmen say. If everyone waits to buy a car, then sales continue to suffer. And if sales continue to suffer, the auto industry's struggles only get worse.

But in the showroom, it's all smiles. Volleyball-size Christmas ornaments dangle from the ceiling. Holiday tunes play on the radio, and an inflatable reindeer keeps pulling an inflatable Santa Claus out of a chimney with a whoosh and a sigh, a whoosh and a sigh.

"I'm going to pop that thing," says Nick Manory, handling Internet sales inquiries nearby. "It's all I hear all day long."

* * * * *

1:33 p.m.: An elderly couple comes in to see if they've won any of the big prizes. They have not, and Stevens moves in. He's trying to persuade the couple to trade in their 2005 Buick for a 2007 model. But soon the couple is fighting about whether they should buy the car, shouting at each other on the showroom floor.

The man: "Go out and sit in the car."

The woman: "Don't yell at me."

The man: "Go out and sit in the car."

The woman: "That's it."

She storms off and, in fact, does go sit in the car.

"We close to helping you out?" Tom Towle asks a few minutes later. He also works with the marketing group and has an impressive title: closer. But even Towle can't save this deal.

"I don't think so," the man replies.

He turns, walking slowly, and joins his wife in the car.

* * * * *

Undaunted by failure - they're taught to accept it, after all - the guys keep plugging away. Mullick works the phones, all energy and laughs. McMullin hustles about the room. And Piacitelli relives sales past, playing saved voice messages from famous athletes who have bought from him, while salesman Alex Gomes stands there, arms crossed.

"Just waiting," says Gomes, sporting a thin mustache. "Just waiting."

But there's only so much waiting one can take, and Piacitelli, his gray hair thinning, is soon working the room.

"Where's my customer?" he says at one point. "Manny, what's happening?" he says, greeting a customer a while later. And when the receptionist announces that she needs a salesman to talk to a potential buyer, Piacitelli slaps his hand on his desk and leaps from his seat.

"I'm one!" he says.

Sooner rather than later, they all wander outside for a hot dog or hamburger, fresh off the grill and free to customers as part of the promotion. Piacitelli is among the first to dig in, and Chris Fousek, the dealership's e-commerce director, decides to have a little fun with him.

"Al, you sell a car yet?" Fousek asks.

Piacitelli has not.

"Then why are you eating a hamburger?" Fousek asks.

"Hamburgers," he adds, "are for closers."

* * * * *

3:46 p.m.: A couple comes in looking for a new Cadillac Escalade with a V8 engine. But Cadillac Village doesn't have one on the lot and Mullick, the salesman helping them, asks sales manager Jim Seery to find out where he can collect the nearest V8 model.

"Pennsylvania," Seery replies.

"Beautiful time of year to go there," Mullick says.

And he's serious. If he has to, Mullick will go to Pennsylvania and drive back with the Escalade. "All for the sale," he says. But the couple begins to waffle. The dealership is offering only $20,000 for their used Cadillac, and they believe they can get $25,000.

The negotiations fall apart and the couple leaves.

* * * * *

On and on it goes, hour after hour. But as the sun begins to set on the Automile, casting long shadows across the cold, hard asphalt, the salesmen at Cadillac Village are starting to feel all right about their day.

Thanks in part to the promotion, they've made five sales - more than they've made on an average day lately. Melo closes two of them, and Deyab claims one as well when Lisa Conrad, the woman shopping for a Cadillac Escalade, buys - just as Deyab believed she would.

In all, it takes him more than four hours to close the deal. But Conrad, whose family owns a Norwood restaurant known for its steak tips, finally, mercifully makes her decision.

OK, she tells Deyab, she'll take the car.

"Lisa," he replies, "woo-hoo! Put me down for steak tips."

He's giddy, and so is the customer. He made a sale. She got a car. Everyone feels like a winner, especially Deyab at the moment.

It's a tough business, selling cars, even in good times. One minute you're up, the next minute you're down, and for Deyab and the others there has been a lot of down lately.

Melo worries about his family's finances.

On a scale of 1 to 10, he says, he'd score his stress level a 9. "You spend a lot of time thinking: 'What should I do? What should I do?' " Melo says. And Deyab understands. In each of the last two months, he says, he has failed to sell eight cars and, therefore, missed out on the monthly bonuses. "Might not make it this month, either," he adds, shaking his head.

But at this moment, basking in the glow of the sale, Deyab is back. He's up. Sarcastically, he dubs himself the "king of the Automile," recounting the 19 years he has spent selling cars, and then he slips outside for a hot dog.

It is cold now, and dark. But Deyab is warm, greeting customers with a smile. Maybe, just maybe, his luck is about to turn.

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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