Car dealer showrooms are likely to join other ‘non-essential’ businesses and reopen on June 1 if Coronavirus infection rates remain under control, according to the latest Government advice.
As non-essential retailers, motor dealerships could be cleared to open again if they can demonstrate that they have robust plans in place to keep customers and employees safe.
Many car dealers have kept their workshops open in a limited capacity throughout most of the lockdown, and more recently showrooms have been given the green light to sell new and used vehicles online provided handovers can be carried out in a safe manner.
These recent changes do not apply to Motability customers as the Motability Scheme is currently closed, with specialist Motability dealers unable to take applications for new cars through the scheme at this time. Existing Motability customers have had their current vehicle leases extended. As they are unable to accept any new vehicle orders, Motability chose not to publish their quarterly Advance Payment pricing on 1 April and the Motability online vehicle search is remains unavailable.
There appears to be considerable pent-up demand from new and existing Motability customers who have had to put their plans on hold due to the lockdown. Website visitors to MotaClarity is on the increase, with traffic up around 150% since the first week of the lockdown. Many Motability customers have started to research their next vehicle ready for when the scheme reopens, and there is anecdotal evidence that people with a disability who qualify for the scheme but who have not yet joined it (thought to be in region of 1.2 million people in the UK) may increasingly see the attraction of leasing their own vehicle, especially as people are being actively encouraged by the Government to avoid public transport for the foreseeable future.
In a statement released via their website on May 15, Motability announced that the Scheme would reopen in stages, with customers who already have vehicles on order (43,000 Motability orders were placed before lockdown) and those who have recently ended their lease (and have vehicles that need to be returned) the first to be contacted by dealers.
For second part of this phased approach Motability will 'start to invite applications from customers who have had their leases extended during the lockdown, in order of their original end of contract date'. The final part of this phased approach will be the opening up of the scheme to brand new Motability customers.
All of this will depend on the sales of returning vehicles, with the firm acknowledging that they will only be 'able to lift all restrictions on future customer orders' when they are confident that they can 'sell used cars in large numbers in a properly functioning marketplace'.
Furthermore, the fact that a high proportion of Motability customers will be classed as 'clinically vulnerable' and shielding will be another factor that Motability and car dealership bosses will have to take into consideration. Being able to demonstrate that a car showroom has great facilities for customers with a disability will be more important than ever before.
Many of the larger car dealer groups have already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), perspex screens, sanitisation products and extra signage as they prepare to get their showrooms and workshops ready to reopen.
We’ve seen evidence that individual dealerships have started to prepare for the end of lockdown by creating dedicated walkways in customer areas (with markings to help visitors and team members keep two metres apart), installing special drop off zones for vehicle keys, configuring desks so that they face away from each other, adding hand sanitising stations and designating different doors for entering and exiting buildings.
Increased use of video presentations and unaccompanied test drives are also expected to become the norm, reflecting both the customer and employees need to minimise their exposure to potential infection. It is likely that dealership staff will be asked to work in separate teams to reduce the number of people they spend time with at work. In addition, visitors to car showrooms will probably only be allowed in by appointment, and the number of people in the showroom at any one time will have to be carefully monitored to avoid overcrowding. It's unlikely you'll be offered a cup of tea of coffee either.
Wessex Garages recently posted a video of their dealerships as they prepare to return to work. In a social media post last week Chris Wiseman, Managing Director at Wessex Garages said: "Aftersales teams are back in and the dealerships are prepped and ready. Customer demand is high with no shortage of bookings".
All car dealers are expected to have to carry out a written risk assessment, with dealers over a certain size required to appoint someone to monitor social distancing. Trading standards officers are already visiting dealerships to make sure the current rules are not being broken.
The continuing need for social distancing could well mean that access to a vehicle will be crucial for many people with a disability for years to come.
The closure of vehicles showrooms has had a devastating effect on the motor industry, with the new car sales falling -97.3% in April 2020.
Speaking about the latest guidlines Sue Robinson, National Franchise Dealer Association (NFDA) Director, said: "People need cars to get back to work. Often, getting work done requires the use of a vehicle. It is positive that the automotive industry is working together to resume business as soon as possible in line with the government’s guidelines. The guidance will allow automotive retailers to provide the best possible service in sales and aftersales while protecting staff and guests. Automotive retailers are resilient and will be working hard to overcome any challenges to safely welcome customers back to the showrooms."