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LI Toyota dealers work to keep customers' loyalty

The Toyota logo hangs over the logo of

The Toyota logo hangs over the logo of a 2007 Yaris sedan on the lot of a Toyota dealership in the southeast Denver suburb of Centennial, Colo. (October 22, 2006) Credit: AP

Sometime later this week, if all goes as planned, customers waiting for their cars to be serviced at Advantage Toyota in Lynbrook will be offered something rarely available at an auto dealership: free shoe shines.

These days, extra courtesies are commonplace at Toyota dealerships as retailers try to keep their customers loyal amid a still-growing number of safety-related recalls and investigations that have tarnished the carmaker's reputation.

From Lynbrook to Riverhead, dealers say they are extending service department hours, in some cases hiring extra technicians and are upgrading waiting-room amenities, even catering breakfasts and handing out chits for lunches and dinners.

Dealers say they are offering more loaner cars and are more often picking up customers' cars from homes or offices - or shuttling customers who have dropped off their own cars back to their homes or offices. "We're doing everything we possibly can as far as making it seamless for the customer," said general manager Denis Dagger at Smithtown Toyota.

Toyota is helping support their efforts, dealers say. At Riverhead Toyota, principal Leo Sternlicht said the carmaker has modified its rental car program rules to make it easier for dealers to use cars as loaners.

Industry analyst Jesse Toprak at the Web site says dealers are doing a good job with existing owners but that Toyota badly needs to offer new sales incentives and longer warranties. Wire service reports say Toyota officials told dealers at a convention in Orlando that new incentives and longer warranties are under consideration.

Sternlicht said his service department is staying open until 7 p.m. rather than 5 p.m. Smithtown's service department also has extended hours, starting at 7 a.m. instead of 8 and working until 8 p.m., rather than 5:30, said Dagger. "What we're trying to do is schedule between 45 and 50 of these [recall] repairs during the day," he said.

At Advantage, general manager Sam Salvin says he has extended service hours, serves snacks and wraps throughout the day and hopes to get the local shoeshiner to make regular visits. There also are plans to expand the service area. "The recall campaign has prodded us to make sure we do this now," he said.

Dealers have reason to be concerned; nationally, sales of Toyota, Scion and Lexus vehicles fell by almost 16 percent in January from a year earlier, while the industry as a whole reported a 6.4 percent increase.

Toyota is recalling some vehicles for potentially sticky accelerators; others to modify gas pedals that might become trapped beneath carpeting; some Prius hybrids to modify antilock brake software; some Tacoma pickups for possible cracks in drive shaft parts; and some 2010 Camrys for power steering fluid leaks - a grand total of about 8.5 million worldwide.

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