The second COVID-19 shutdown has come at a markedly different point in the retail car sales cycle. January and February are already traditionally slower times of the year, so what are Ontario dealers doing this time around?
“You create your way out of it,” said Michael Eatson, the dealer principal at Peterborough Volkswagen, in Peterborough, Ontario, adding with a laugh, “We’ve had practice now! We learned a lot when this first started, and we’ve adapted, and helped customers adapt.”
While car sellers have retained their essential-business badge throughout the shutdowns, it’s definitely not been business as usual.
Last March, dealers like Eatson were tasked with trying to imagine not only what buyers would want, but how they would be willing to buy, and how inventory could be managed to meet expectations. While those in northern climes can’t get their hands on enough pickups, Volkswagen has seen interest in its SUVs gain steam. The Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport has been attractive to buyers, and Eatson said the certified used-car program continues to be a focal point as cyclical lease returns ensure supply. As with many dealers all over, supply has been restricted, and lower inventory is a result.
At the start of winter, they were focusing on snowbirds, a group now here when they’re usually not. Winter tires were a great supplement to business-as-usual, but now, Eatson has had to dig a little deeper into his tool kit for answers. To keep his staff working – he’s laid off no salespeople – he’s gone old-school. “We’re re-engaging with customers the old-fashioned way. Digging out boxes of actual files, reconnecting, touching base. It’s familiar ground for the older crew, and the younger ones are seeing how it used to be done,” he said.
The summer weather offered some easier workarounds when Eatson used big tents for a safe sales floor. Winter closes off that option, but when you’ve been in business for 50 years with a clientele he calls “very loyal, very patient, and very understanding,” you find a way. It’s a three-generation dealership. Eatson’s parents started it in 1969, and now his two sons are carrying on the family tradition. The staff roster even includes Ruby Eatson, a dog who’s listed as the “Barking Lot Attendant.”
Eatson is the current Trillium Automobile Dealers Association (TADA) president. He’s a strong voice in turbulent times, but the quickly-shifting demands of the industry in normal times were nothing compared to operating in the midst of a pandemic.
When the power goes out, you reach for candles and flashlights. When the internet goes down, you reach for paper backup. When a business must now be precipitated with an appointment, you start to hustle to make sure customers know you’re ready to meet them.
The service area is catching up on all those things that get pushed aside when things are busy. It’s usually slower for service right now anyway, but Eatson knows the opportunity can be used for housekeeping. “Not gonna lie, it was a nervous first few days. You’re looking at empty service schedules, you see a lot of layoffs happening all around you, and I just wanted to find a way to keep as many people working as possible.” Service people have rotated holidays, shared shifts, and slowly watched the service schedule come back to life. “It is a typically slow time, but obviously, this is unprecedented.”
The Peterborough dealer services a mix of rural and urban customers, and managing those challenges through turbulent times has been a test for all dealers. “We had to of course cancel the shuttle service, but we’ve continued to use valet service to keep customers on schedule for service.”
“It’s time to dig into our database and clean it up, follow up on existing customers, and really, just say hello.” If someone bought a car five years ago, it makes good business sense to make sure that same dealership remembers the customer and wants the chance to keep that relationship going. Eatson’s father, all those years ago, insisted his son learn every department of the business hands-on. He knows that the fixed operations – all those parts outside of sales – will make or break an enterprise. This Volkswagen dealer has also worked with co-op programs with local high schools, often hiring those at the end of their term. A fluid mix of experience in an industry-changing at lightning speed has probably never been so important.
In uncertain times, harking back to the roots of practices that have helped you weather previous storms, whether economic or industry, can provide a path forward. Car dealerships may have never been confronted with something as stunning as a global pandemic, but like all of us, they too, are figuring new ways forward. As Eatson says, you create your way out of it.