IS NO-HAGGLE NO GOOD?

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Maybe we all missed something amid the praise that's been lavished on the auto industry for finally-finally!-coming up with a powerful new idea in auto retailing: no-haggle, one-price marketing.

Now, as first reported in our sister publication Automotive News, the U.S. Justice Department's antitrusters have harrumphed. Suddenly it's being suggested no-haggle can be no good.

General Motors' Saturn division first used one-price marketing to reshape car shoppers' retail buying experience and boost customer satisfaction and loyalty. Ever since, no-haggle pricing has been Exhibit A when marketing people discuss the new thinking coming out of Detroit.

Most importantly, lots of car buyers like it. Grumbles, where they've been heard, are from some dealers who complain Detroit is pinching their margins to give consumers a better deal.

Today we're being challenged to look at no-haggle auto pricing with different eyes. Despite all the applause for it, the question now on the table is this: Can it also be illegal resale price maintenance?

Don't blame Washington for asking. Plenty of companies have had their hands slapped in the past for trying to dictate the prices independent retailers can charge for their goods. When it's come up before, antitrusters usually smell a manufacturer strategy aimed at propping up prices to protect full-service retailers while curbing discount retail outlets.

So now Justice Department probers want to pore over auto dealer files looking for signs of another plot to keep prices and profits up. It may be a fruitless search.

This is not to say there isn't a potential for problems. But no-haggle is such a good idea that automakers and auto dealers shouldn't bat an eye as the Justice Department gumshoes go to work.

No-haggle is a concept worth sticking with, and after the regulators finish haggling over details, it must survive.

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