NEWS- Dueling superstores: CarMax in showdown on Pantops
What's in a name? If you're a locally owned business trading as The Auto Superstore and CarMax: The Auto Superstore is moving in right across the street from you, there's a whole lot in it– or, ahem, riding on it.
The battle between the two used car dealers is heating up in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, after CarMax, a publicly held company, demanded that The Auto Superstore stop using the name. The local outpost of CarMax is slated to open December 8.
"Here we've served this community for years," says Auto Superstore manager Mike Phillips, "and the first thing they want to do is strong-arm the little guy on the block."
Auto Superstore attorney Fran Lawrence says the trouble started in June 2004 when CarMax sent a letter to his client complaining about their name. Lawrence says his client, full name: "Dennis Enterprises: The Auto Superstore" has been in business locally for 27 years, and using the "Auto Superstore" name in the Pantops location since 1997.
Lawrence contends that the term "auto superstore" is generic, and therefore cannot be trademarked. He says his client doesn't object to CarMax using "auto superstore" as part of its name; it just wants the right to continue using it too.
CarMax sees things differently.
"We applied for a trademark for Auto Superstore," says CarMax spokesperson Trina Lee. "When people think of Auto Superstores, they think of CarMax. It's really part of our brand identity."
Lee objects to the idea that Car CarMax is not "strong-arming" the little guy. It's simply trying to protect its identity. "From the beginning, in 1993," says Lee, "we've been using 'Auto Superstore' to identify our stores."
Indeed, according the the United States Patent and Trademark Office website, uspto.gov, CarMax first filed for a trademark containing the name Auto Superstore in April 1994.
Dennis Enterprises applied September 27 of this year for the trademarks "Dennis Auto Superstore" and "The Original Auto Superstore," all of which are pending. Bridget Quinn in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says it will take up to three months for a determination, which is based on one criterion: will one mark cause confusion with another in consumers' minds?
While the Office doesn't actually enforce the marks, says Quinn, they can be used as evidence in future litigation. "It's something the holder can use to help in defending their mark," she says.
If CarMax is awarded the trademark, will it continue to pursue the other Auto Superstore to force it to change its name?
"I don't know if we would be at a point to say how we would handle that," Lee says.
Phillips says he hopes CarMax will recognize what he believes local customers already know.
"We're part of this community," he says, "and we've been here all this time."
PHOTO BY COURTENEY STUART
Would the real Auto Superstore please stand up?
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER