Dealerships Adapt to New Ways of Doing Business

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Demolition was proceeding Thursday on the building formerly occupied by Sweeney Buick GMC. 

The new 40,000-square-foot building that replaced the storm-damaged structure not only provides a new home for the dealership, but also affords much-needed space to spread out staff during the coronavirus outbreak

“We had been running half shifts,” says Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC in Boardman. “That gave us a lot more space to respect that six-foot distancing.” 

Social distancing requirements represent just one of the hurdles local auto dealers face as they cope with the measures needed to operate during the pandemic. 

To adapt to current conditions, some dealers have expanded their offerings to include online ordering and at-home delivery of vehicles; those that already had those services in place have seen them used more frequently. They have installed physical barriers and adopted new hygiene protocols for vehicles, and in some cases temporarily discontinued use of lounge areas. 

Vehicles now are disinfected before and after test drives, which now are done without a sales representative in the vehicle during the drive. 

Sweeney’s dealerships closed for about two weeks in mid-March before reopening with limited hours. While closed, a cleaning company disinfected the dealership buildings, Blackann says, and high-traffic areas are now regularly disinfected.

Masks for employees are now mandated and partitions have been installed in paperwork areas, she added. The dealership has conducted several no-contact transactions utilizing FedEx for the paperwork.  

“It’s really changed how we do digital retailing,” she says. “We have always done deliveries up to 300 miles, so we already had those processes in place.”  

During the shutdown, Sweeney Buick GMC moved into its new building, reopening April 4. Having the new building up and running helped because service operations for the Buick GMC and Chevrolet operations had been consolidated at the Chevy dealership building during the project, she added.  

Klaben Ford Lincoln in Warren initially revised work schedules so fewer people were in the dealership building at the same time, but the dealership did not lay off or terminate any employees, says President Mike Klaben.

The dealership has always offered online correspondence and applications, but has “added more emphasis to it” under the present conditions, Klaben says. 

The dealership has increased remote delivery and vehicles are disinfected before the buyer takes possession. 

Plexiglass shields are in place to provide a barrier between staff and customers, and the floor markings that have become familiar in other establishments are in place as well, he says. Hand sanitizer is available throughout the dealership and all employees wear face masks. 

“The good part is we don’t have to mandate customers to do that,” he says. “We don’t want to be put in a position to make the customer do something they’re not comfortable with.”  

Jim Shorkey Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Austintown closed for about a week and slowly reopened after putting some safeguards in place for employees and customers, says general manager Justin Bradley. 

“First and foremost, we’re trying to do everything we possibly can on the phone or online prior to the customer coming to the dealership,” Bradley says. Customers no longer enter the dealership building, instead completing any paperwork for sales and service under a tent.     

Upon arrival, employees have their temperature taken and don masks and gloves. “We’re just making sure that everything is in place for our customers to be safe,” Bradley says.  

Another Austintown dealership, Fred Martin Ford, closed March 23 and reopened Monday, though it is “not fully operational yet,” says Brian McCormick, general manager. After everything that’s happened the past month or so, he hopes things in May will be “a little bit more to normal,” he says. 

“This week mostly has been internet sales,” with customers either coming into the dealership to pick their vehicles up or a Fred Martin Ford employee delivering it, McCormick says. “A lot of people that needed service done,” he says. 

During the shutdown, the dealership’s service department did work for the Austintown police department and a few customers by appointment only, he says. 

The Martin dealership is following all guidelines issued by the state of Ohio, including marking the showroom floor to ensure social distancing happens, McCormick says. There is “a lot of separation” for people in the service area and the number of vehicles on the showroom floor has been reduced to two from 10.  

Hand sanitizing stations are being installed and physical barriers are in place in the service and parts departments. Per state guidelines, employees will be required to wear face coverings, though they remain optional for customers. Masks will be provided for customers who come in without one to use if they choose, but they won’t be asked to leave unless they present with symptoms.    

“We hope it never comes to it,” McCormick says. “Something you never want to do is ask a customer to leave your retail establishment.” 

In addition to increased sanitation, the main change for vehicle test drives is the salesperson no longer accompanies the prospective buyer. 

“I hope it doesn’t last forever,” McCormick says. “I would love to have a salesperson there to let you know how everything works.”    

Shorkey disinfects vehicles prior to each test drive, Bradley says. Customers fill out paperwork for a rental agreement to allow them to take the vehicle unaccompanied by a sales representative.  

In the service department, Sweeney has instituted no-contact dropoff, and customers are given the option of picking up the vehicle or having it delivered after the work is completed, Blackann says. In addition, the customer is sent a video with the mechanic’s recommendation for what needs to be done.   

Fred Martin Ford has removed half the seats in the Ford service area and eliminated seating entirely in the Mercedes-Benz service department, McCormick says. 

Like other dealerships, Klaben Ford Lincoln is offering pickup and delivery on service, and has expanded its loaner program. This weekend, after being eliminated for part of March and all of April, the dealership is reinstituting Saturday service hours at the request of customers, but closed the service lounge so people won’t be sitting side by side.  

In general, the public has responded positively to the changes, the dealers say.

“So far people have been fantastic,” McCormick says. “They can see we’re trying to make them feel safe.”  

Customers for the most part appreciate what Shorkey is doing to serve them, Bradley says. “The staff has adapted, too, but it has been a change for us,” he adds. 

Most customers are comfortable getting as much done as they can prior to coming to the dealership, a trend that predated the coronavirus outbreak, Klaben says. If there’s a pattern now, it’s that people still want to come to the dealership, even with delivery being an option. 

“They want to come in and pick up the car in person and they want to complete the paperwork and make their final signature here,” he says.  

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.