Opinion: Car Dealers Say People are Looking to Autos to Break Pandemic Cabin Fever 

People are relying on the automobile as an emotional antidote to isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. Local automobile dealers can attest to that.

With recreational and social options limited, and amid concerns about social distancing with public transportation or flying, people are going for a drive.

“People aren’t moving around,” said dealer Matt Halbur of Rydell Chevrolet in Waterloo. “They’re working from home, they’re not going on vacations and their automobile is that much more important to them. It’s our job to make sure they’re in a safe, reliable vehicle.

Halbur and other local dealers said that early in the pandemic, many car owners were cautious, putting off preventive maintenance and delaying decisions.

Halbur and other local dealers said that early in the pandemic, many car owners were cautious, putting off preventive maintenance and delaying decisions.

“I don’t see many people avoiding the dealership like they did when we first started,” said Dan Deery of Dan Deery Motor Co.” I don’t think anybody likes it, but everybody’s used to it.”

But after that brief slowdown, sales and service business picked up, said George Cooley of C&S Car Co.

“This summer was busy. It was fine. It was a challenge, but it was good,” Cooley said. “I would tell you overall, it was OK, other than that first quarter.”

C&S is a Subaru, Hyundai, Mazda, and Genesis dealer with a large fleet of used cars that customers took advantage of during the pandemic.

“We saw people had issues with public transportation. We saw issues with carpooling. We know the airlines had their issues. I really believe there was a huge trickle-down,” Cooley said.

Initially, some people delayed maintenance. “And then it leveled and then it was fine,” Cooley said. “We put Plexiglas (work) stations up first part of April. We have disinfectant stations in each department. And as time went by we made masks mandatory, and they still are. I know there are people who are stand-offish to wearing a mask. I didn’t see it here.”

“Business really took a tumble in that first part of 2020 when that pandemic first took hold,” Halbur of Rydell said. “But then, in about June, it exploded. It exploded all over. It exploded in service, body shop, sales, our parts business. It was a really, really good second half of the year and it’s transitioning into 2021 as well.”

Social distancing and masking when working with customers “had become second nature,” Halbur said.

Service business remained steady. They began picking up vehicles in customers’ driveways for those who didn’t feel comfortable leaving their homes. The emphasis is on disinfection.

“The pick-up and delivery have been huge for us,” Halbur said. “It’s been above and beyond what we ever thought it would be. And I think it’s something we’re going to keep on doing in the future as well.”

If service technicians find something that needs repair beyond scheduled maintenance, they send videos customers can see on their computer or phone.

“Harnessing technology to take care of people was a big part of our existence through this whole deal,” Halbur said. It likely has become the norm. “People grow to expect it. It’s a different way of doing business. It’s one of those things where you need to adapt.”

A few body shops saw an uptick in business after the August derecho. With shops full across central Iowa, businesses gravitated toward the Cedar Valley. Rydell is doing a $250,000 renovation and expansion of its body shop, Halbur and Rydell body shop manager Brad Vaughn said.With local dealerships in Waterloo, Independence, and a parts warehouse in Evansdale, Rydell’s workforce remained generally healthy.

“Between employees that actually had COVID or had a spouse, child, or family member that had COVID and had to go on quarantine of some time, we had maybe four to six at a time. We obviously worked with them, with their COVID pay, and made sure we kept everybody else and the dealership safe and kept them home.”

About 3% to 5% of their total workforce of about 190 was affected by COVID.

Similarly, Cooley said C&S hadn’t had any issues with absenteeism until a post-Thanksgiving spike that was felt countywide. ”They all came at once, and now they’re gone, and that was over two months ago,” he said.

The pandemic was a learning process for everyone.

“COVID is not something you really plan for,” said Todd Arenholz, general manager at Deery Bros. Collision Center in Cedar Falls. “So we kind of evolved as more information was released.”

“Right away when it hit, everybody was kind of in a panic,” Arenholz said.

But they figured out how to take care of customers who couldn’t leave the house. Photos and other information can be submitted via computer for damage estimates and to make insurance claims.

“And then we offered free pick up and delivery for people who didn’t want to get out of their house,” Arenholz said.

Vehicles get sanitized, with the focus on high-touch areas like door handles, mirrors and windows, and door frames. All replacement parts are treated too. Customers and vendors do business by appointment and email as opposed to walk-in traffic to limit the number of people coming into the building.

COVID hadn’t affected the collision center’s workforce, with no diagnosed cases among staff through mid-January.

“We’re pretty proud of that, knock on wood,” Arenholz said. “I think we’re one of the lucky ones.” Twenty-five people work at the collision center. “We’re pretty diligent about what we do.” Masks are required away from personal workspaces.

Business spiked as a result of the derecho, with motorists from Cedar Rapids and points south bringing damaged vehicles to be fixed. It has continued. “We’re booked a month out,” Arenholz said.

Dan Deery said the business flow at the dealership followed that of the collision center. “We lost a lot of business for about 45-90 days, probably. … Maintenance work we saw really drop off because people said, ‘We’ll wait until this is over.’ Then after 60 days, it went pretty much back to normal.”

Sales have been good, Deery said, almost outstripping the inventory. “There was a shortage of inventory for a long time because of the manufacturers that were shut down because of COVID. … And we still haven’t caught up.”

Technology had started to change the way cars are sold prior to COVID.

“You probably started on the website or the internet and then came in after you found the car you wanted,” Deery said. We don’t see the walk-in traffic that we were used to back in my sales days.”

But at the point of purchase, people still want one-on-one contact with the dealer and the vehicle they are going to buy.

“Can you imagine buying a car over the computer without seeing it?” Deery asked. “People still want to see, touch, feel, drive before making a decision.”

Source: People look to autos to break pandemic cabin fever, dealers say

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