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Lookers and Cambria dealer group bosses speak out as reports suggest showrooms could be closed until April

3 months ago

It looks increasingly likely car dealerships will not be allowed to reopen for the key plate change month of March.

Reports this weekend suggest that while schools are likely to go back on March 8, it will be April at the earliest for non-essential retail to reopen.

Car dealers – including bosses of listed dealer groups Cambria and Lookers – have told Car Dealer of their concern as the motor trade faces missing the key 21-plate change month.

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But there are still hopes that dealerships will not be lumped in with all non essential retail and allowed to open earlier as industry trade bodies continue to lobby the government to at least allow outdoor forecourts to operate.

Leaks of the prime minister’s road map out of lockdown say scientists fear schools reopening will push the falling ‘R’ rate back up, meaning non-essential retail – which includes car dealerships – is not likely to reopen until April, with pubs and restaurants following in May.

Cambria Automobiles CEO Mark Lavery told Car Dealer the consequences of remaining shut could be ‘profound’ and hoped calls from industry bodies would be listened to.

He said: ‘It is completely unfair for vehicle showrooms to be left closed during the industry critical month of March and particularly when you walk into supermarkets and see no entry controls or social distancing not being recognised.

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‘The government listened last time post lockdown one and allowed us to open before other non-essential retail outlets.

‘At the very least we need forecourts open to display product and unaccompanied test drives with handover via current click and collect protocols.

‘If showrooms are shut, and the industry misses March, the consequences could be profound.’

Privately some other dealer group bosses are more hopeful. One said he even hoped to be open ‘mid-March’.

There is clearly a fight for showrooms to be excluded from being lumped in with other non-essential retail going on behind the scenes as all the bosses we spoke to said they were aware trade groups were lobbying for this.

Car dealers have been operating online only via click and collect since the third lockdown was imposed in the first week of January. 

While new car sales were at 60 per cent of normal levels in January, dealers report their order banks for March are nowhere near as strong as they would usually be.

Mike Hawes, chief executive of car industry body SMMT, told Car Dealer that it is ‘understandable’ the government wants to mitigate the risk that more public movements could have on the virus, but wants to see the motor trade restarted.

He said: ‘The priority now must be to allow car showrooms to reopen as soon as it is safe to relax some of the lockdown restrictions. 

‘Car showrooms have been made Covid-secure; they have relatively low footfall, can readily operate on an appointment-only basis and are spacious indoor and outdoor environments. 

‘With March such a critical month for the sector and sales lost during this time unlikely to be recovered, every day showrooms can be open will matter enormously.’

The Sunday Times says ministers have drawn up a four-speed plan for restarting the economy with all shops, pubs and restaurants open as normal between May and August. 

However, the different speeds will see this happening at different times depending on the virus and vaccines.

The paper reports the country will move through a tiered system together this time, with no regional differences that saw dealers closed in some parts of the country while others operated as normal.

The Prime Minister told Sky News yesterday: ‘Our children’s education is our number one priority, but then working forward, getting non-essential retail open as well and then, in due course as and when we can prudently, cautiously, of course we want to be opening hospitality as well.

‘I’m optimistic, I won’t hide it from you. I’m optimistic, but we have to be cautious.’

Lookers CEO Mark Raban

Lookers CEO Mark Raban

Lookers chief executive Mark Raban told Car Dealer that he agreed that it does look like April will be the start of phased reopening for retail.

He said: ‘The good news is we can continue with aftersales but with the showrooms closed vehicle sales in March will be disrupted. 

‘Internally we had planned to “be out” throughout the entirety of Q1, but were obviously hoping to be back sooner. 

‘Safety and welfare of staff and customers remains the key priority, but as a sector we are well positioned to cope with social distancing with spacious premises and a large part of the business outside on the forecourt. 

‘Our team and customers have shown great resilience and flexibility as we have implemented new processes and ways of working – many of which will continue as we start to put Covid behind us. We are looking forward to brighter times.’

Devonshire Motors boss Nathan Tomlinson, who runs Mitsubishi dealer Devonshire Motors said he is confident they’ll be a release of pent up demand when dealers are allowed to open again.

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He said: ‘I do think that we’ll enjoy a healthy bounce once we are able to operate without one hand tied behind our back.

‘Maybe the way we have to go about this is to let go of the tradition which surrounds March and set a course towards ensuring that we get the “March effect” as soon as possible. 

‘Is a poor Q1 going to absolutely devastate the automotive sector? No, of course not. But, it will certainly impact the financial health of many businesses and as a result it will place more jobs at risk, sooner.’

James Baggott

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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