In 2006, Ford began to shrink its dealership network in order to more efficiently align its distribution network. Three years later, it appears that the hardest hit are the company's stand-alone Lincoln-Mercury dealerships. While there were 619 Lincoln-Mercury dealerships nationwide just a few years ago, the number had dwindled down to just 357 at the beginning of 2009.

Automotive News recently spoke with Ford CEO Alan Mulally about the future of the Lincoln brand and its stand-alone Lincoln-Mercury stores. While Ford's current strategy is pushing combo Ford-Lincoln-Mercury retailers, Mulally would not confirm that eliminating the stand-alone Lincoln-Mercury dealerships was the desired end result. When pushed on the question, Mulally reiterated that Ford was focusing on building a distribution network which allowed sales volume, product breadth, and profitability... qualities that are apparently better served by the Ford-Lincoln-Mercury store.

Mulally added that although these combo dealerships will be selling the Lincoln MKS on the same lot as the Ford Taurus (both vehicles share platforms and mechanicals), retailers will learn how to deliver the sales experience that fits the vehicle and differentiates the brand. Whether this concept works or whether car salesmen simply take the easy route and sell the less expensive Ford remains to be seen.

Either way, it has to be asked – is peeling away at the automaker's stand-alone LM dealers part of a larger plan to do away with Mercury altogether? Inquiring minds want to know...

[Source: Automotive News - Sub. Req. | Image: Stephen Brashear/Getty]