Everybody trembles: CarMax eyes Pantops

For years, Pantops Mountain has been home to a fleet of new and used auto dealerships. But recent news that the "no-haggle" used car superstore CarMax is eyeing the White House motel site has some local auto dealers rattling.

"What? What? What!?," cried one receptionist at a small area dealership. "CarMax? Oh, gravy!"

In fact, says CarMax spokesperson Lisa Van Riper, it's not time for gravy– the deal's far from cooked.

"This is very, very preliminary," says Van Riper, explaining that the nearly five-acre site, assessed in 2003 for $1.5 million, has not yet been purchased.

But while it may be preliminary, it's clearly under serious consideration. In fact, an initial site plan with renderings by the Georgia-based architecture firm Pieper O'Brien Herr was reviewed by Albemarle County's Architectural Review Board on Monday, August 16.

The plan, which shows two separate glass-fronted buildings with a tree in the center, as well as parking in front and in the rear, was critiqued by the ARB, whose members nixed the 170-space parking lot in front of the building and believed that the plan called for too many retaining walls.

By this point, though, CarMax is certainly used to dealing with red tape from localities.

Started in Richmond in 1991 as a subsidiary of Circuit City, CarMax, now a publicly traded corporation, boasts 55 stores across the nation. Van Riper says that, when considering expansion, the business looks to areas that are "geographically underserved" by current stores.

Though Richmond has a CarMax in Short Pump, just 45 minutes from Charlottesville, and a second store due to open in October on Midlothian Turnpike on Richmond's south side, Van Riper says her company sees a need for another store in Central Virginia.

She says CarMax's "competitive pricing" and "a la carte" treatment of the four components of price– sticker price, trade-in, fees, and financing– make shopping there attractive to used car buyers.

While other dealerships make money by "having a target profit on each car," CarMax, she says, profits from volume.

The average CarMax sold 5,200 cars last year, says Van Riper, who notes that's three to four times the volume a traditional dealer moves– in both new and used vehicles.

"They look for your hot button," says Van Riper of competitors. "They'll give you a low price, but they could increase your finance rate, add on some fees, and potentially lower the value of your trade-in to make target profit."

But some local dealers say CarMax tactics are all tail-smoke and rearview mirrors.

"We don't understand why they're as successful as they are," says Dan Dickerson, owner of Dan's Automart on Seminole Trail. "They don't give no great deals," he says, "they just put a price on them."

Dickerson says his prices are as low, and he can offer anything that CarMax does– except the slick national marketing a huge corporation can afford.

"That's it," he says.

But not every dealer is troubled by CarMax's possible arrival.

"I think it's awesome," says Charles Fadeley, owner of Free Bridge Auto on Pantops, where a sign promising "everybody rides" is posted out front.

Because Free Bridge caters primarily to shoppers who cannot get financing through traditional means– "your job is your credit," boasts an ad– CarMax shoppers are, for the most part, not potential Free Bridge customers.

CarMax is "not competition for me," says Fadeley. "As a matter of fact, I buy about 80 percent of my cars from one of their locations."

CarMax customers typically are looking for two- or three-year-old cars, says Fadeley, while Free Bridge sells four- and five-year-old cars. When CarMax customers trade in their older cars, CarMax auctions them off to dealers– which is where Fadeley acquires much of his inventory.

Fadeley is hoping that CarMax, if it opens locally, will hold auctions on site so he won't have to travel to stock his lot.

But though CarMax may be good news for Fadeley, he acknowledges that traditional new and used car dealerships may take a hit.

"It will cramp their style a little bit," he says, "but it's not going to put them out of business."

Today: the White House motel. Tomorrow: CarMax?