Discount program boosts GM sales

Nearly every major automaker saw their U.S. sales drop in August, but many are seeing signs that the worst slump in recent history may have bottomed out.

Most upbeat were executives from General Motors Corp., which posted a 20.3 percent sales decline from a year ago but a 31 percent improvement over July's dismal totals.

Much of the gain came from offering all buyers employee discounts on many models, but Mark LaNeve, GM's vice president of North American sales, said there's hope that June and July were the trough for U.S. sales.

“We are very encouraged by what we saw in August. It gives us reason to think that we are starting to pull our way out of this,” he said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters and industry analysts.

Chrysler LLC said its U.S. sales fell more than 34 percent in August, while Ford Motor Co. reported a 26.5 percent decline. Toyota Motor Corp.'s sales dipped 9.4 percent, and Honda Motor Co. saw a 7.3 percent slide.

Nissan Motor Co. was the only major automaker to report an increase over August 2007: Its sales climbed 13.6 percent.

Even though most automakers saw sales drop, many predicted the overall market would be up substantially over July, the worst month for U.S. sales in 16 years.

They also said lower fuel prices were starting to ease consumers' minds, with the market shifting a little bit back toward trucks and sport utility vehicles, which increased their percentage share of the market.

Company officials also said consumer sentiment was improving, housing price declines and manufacturing production are stabilizing, and exports continue to be strong.

“Some bright spots are emerging,” said Irv Miller, group vice president for communications with Toyota, whose sales improved 7.1 percent from July to August.

But the companies tempered their remarks by saying that they'll face challenging conditions for the rest of this year and even into 2009, with the housing slump projected to continue and tight credit and leasing combining to knock buyers out of the market.

Fueled by the employee discounts for everyone, which GM extended Wednesday until Sept. 30, the Detroit automaker posted its best sales month of the year in August.

LaNeve said he didn't think there would be a huge payback for the discounts, which amount to around 10 percent off invoice prices but vary by model.

He said the discounts may cost GM 4,000 to 5,000 sales during the next four months or so, but that could be erased by a market uptick.