So, once again, the goal posts have been moved and car dealers are facing another seven weeks operating with their forecourts closed.
While the motor trade has made a great success of selling online – with some dealers even surpassing their previous years’ numbers via digital sales – there will be many car buyers out there delaying their car purchases for a little while longer.
Let’s face it, if you’re buying a new, or especially used car, the chances are you’re going to want to see it, touch it and, crucially, take it for a test drive.
Now those buyers thinking about a new 21-plate model but undecided which one they’d go for, will probably decide to leave it a little while longer.
Dealers I’ve been chatting to over the last few weeks say that they’ve already got note pads full of people to call when they’re allowed to offer test drives again.
David Wishart, a SsangYong and MG dealer in Scotland, said some of his customers simply refuse to buy without trying first. He’s confident as soon as they do get behind the wheel they’ll take the plunge, but they’ll have to wait.
Sean Kelly, MD of Vines BMW, told the Car Dealer Podcast that he was actually hopeful that as soon as a date was announced the phones would start ringing. He said it was then his job to convince the customers not to wait and to buy now.
It’s the waiting dealers face until April 12 that’s so frustrating. The industry had been lobbying the government to be excluded from other non essential retail and treated differently – but that appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
There’s a reason that argument should have worked – and that’s because car showrooms are different.
There are few other shops that could claim to have the same open, airy showrooms, where footfall is light and easily managed via appointments as car dealers can.
Remember too that car dealers have big outdoor forecourts they can operate from as well. Surely these could have been opened to at least give those 21-plate customers the chance to come and see the car they’re thinking about buying?
March is a vital month for the car industry – it generates 500,000 sales in a typical year and revenues of around £15bn.
If dealers manage the same 60 per cent of sales they did in January this March, that will mean the treasury will miss out on £1.2bn of much-needed VAT receipts.
What will really get car dealers’ goat is the fact they haven’t been treated differently at all. One dealer told us that it’s clear the government has ‘no clue’ what dealers do, or how they do it.
For an example of that you only have to note the fact car dealers have been lumped in with hairdressers for their reopening day.
How someone getting up close and personal with your hair is the same as someone handing a customer some sanitised keys and having a socially distanced chat on a forecourt is beyond me.
I’ll be blunt: It’s absolutely not in any way similar.
Car dealers have proved they can operate in a Covid Secure manner. They’ve installed one way systems, screens, hand sanitising stations, staff wear masks and cars are scrubbed down before people get in them.
This is a serious industry that takes its health and safety obligations incredibly seriously too.
Missing March will be a ‘devastating blow’, as the boss of TrustFord, Stuart Foulds, rightly pointed out, but there has to be some positivity. I like Daksh Gupta’s take on things – ‘I am viewing it as 49 days and counting,’ he said, ever the optimist.
Many of the dealers we chatted to following the announcement were understandably upset – but they pointed out the digital strides they’ve taken to sell cars have been huge.
Yes, seven more weeks won’t be what the motor trade wanted, but there’s highly likely to be a big bang of pent-up demand released when showrooms do open again.
People won’t be going on holiday any time soon, they’ve got savings accounts stuffed full of cash (if they’ve remained in a job), and they’ll be desperate for something to cheer themselves up with.
A visit to a car dealership and that new car feel could be just the tonic.
As one dealer put it to me in a text message – ‘May is the new March’ – and with mind sets like that, I have every confidence car dealers will still make a success of 2021.
James Baggott is the founder of Car Dealer Magazine and chief executive officer of parent company Baize Group, an automotive media specialist.