Car dealers across England and Wales are throwing open their showroom doors again after months of pandemic-enforced closure.
Restrictions are easing across England and Wales today (April 12) as non-essential retail – which includes car showrooms – is allowed to welcome people back indoors again.
It comes a week after car dealers in Scotland were allowed to resume trading after lockdown restrictions eased there.
There’s no change in guidance for retailers in Northern Ireland, with people told to ‘stay local’ where possible. However, contactless click/phone-and-collect will be allowed for all non-essential retail businesses from April 12, and outdoor businesses such as vehicle retailers will also be able to reopen then.
The news of showrooms in reopening in England and Wales has been met with widespread joy and relief across the industry.
Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief Mike Hawes said: ‘After one of the hardest years in living memory for everyone, reopening showrooms today takes the handbrake off UK Auto.
‘As the automotive sector counts the cost of £22.2bn lost in turnover during the pandemic, we hope today marks the start of that recovery, as well as giving consumers ever more choice for their motoring needs.’
Paul Philpott, Kia Motors UK president & CEO, said: ‘The first months of this year have been tough for the industry as a whole and March stood in stark contrast to previous years.
‘Our dealer network has worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic coming up with new ways to give customers the tools they need to complete a purchase remotely, in line with the latest guidance and the evolving expectations of buyers.
‘That said, we are excited about the prospect of our showrooms across the rest of the UK opening their doors again later this month, for the many customers who prefer to purchase a car in-person.’
Back to work
Marshall Motor Group boss Daksh Gupta told Car Dealer the pandemic had taught dealers to change their businesses for the better and he’s bringing all his staff back to work.
‘The pandemic has forced both dealers and customers to adapt to new online sales methods including click-and-collect – this has been the one big thing to have come out of the past 12 months,’ he said. ‘It has also allowed us to take on the new disrupters in this industry.
‘Everyone is coming back to work on Monday – there will be no-one left on the bench. Some companies will want to milk the furlough scheme but we’re not doing that; everyone is ready and really excited.’
Looking ahead to the rest of the month and into the summer, Gupta said: ‘There will be a bounce back for sure, but it won’t be like anything we have seen in the last year as we are now in a different position.’
Meanwhile, Chris Wiseman, managing director of Wessex Garages, is pleased his dealerships in both England and Wales are reopening at the same time – something that hasn’t always been a feature of the past 12 months, with different restrictions in each country.
‘We are obviously delighted that we will be open in England and Wales at the same time and have spent the last couple of weeks booking in test drives, particularly for new product and conquest business,’ he told Car Dealer.
‘March proved to be very successful, particularly with used cars, where we achieved over 90 per cent of our budget and exceeded last year, albeit we lost the end of the month in 2020.
‘With new cars I think it will be a case of March in two halves, so a much better April performance than normal but not to the same level as a normal March.
‘Hopefully as we transition out of lockdown and more people get the second vaccine jab, then we will see a more normal pattern of sales start to emerge.
‘So much has been done within the industry to adapt to the “click-and-collect model” means we are well equipped to be able to provide a more blended approach between pure online and showroom visits. This is probably where I see the new normal.’
Looking ahead, Wiseman said: ‘Clearly, the government approach to travel will impact on the second half of the year as that pent-up spend and demand for holidays increases.
‘But overall I am hopeful of a quick return to normal trading levels in sales – slightly slower in April and May for aftersales due to the extensions on MOTs in 2020.’
Hull Mitsubishi has organised a Willy Wonka-style reopening event for between April 12 and 30, and general manager/director Andrew Iveson told us: ‘As a dealership we are ready, prepared and excited but there is an air of nervousness around.
‘We have a duty of care to our customers and staff to be safe, and we are committed to keeping to this duty.
‘I personally cannot wait. We have surpassed my expectations over the past few months and have proved how versatile the motor trade can be, but there’s nothing like the buzz of people in the showroom and helping the customer choose their dream car.’
He added: ‘’The showroom looks better than ever. Our reopening event is already proving popular and takes away some of the elements of the big question of how much pent-up demand is there.
‘I wanted a structured event that would put everyone at ease as soon as they walked through the door. We have 70 appointments so far over a longer-than-normal event period, so all fingers crossed!
‘I think most of the motor trade feel like racehorses that have been able to exercise in the paddock but in reality are desperate to get back on the course.’
Customers will flock to showrooms
Stuart Foulds, chairman and chief executive of TrustFord, the world’s largest dealer group for Ford, said he was expecting his business to be very busy.
‘I think the public will flock to dealerships, having been unable to visit since before Christmas,’ he told Car Dealer.
‘Our online sales have been and continue to be extremely strong – but overwhelmingly our research tells us that customers still love the theatre of visiting and having their car “unveiled” at collection time.’
Foulds added he hoped any talk of a third wave of Covid-19 can be controlled.
‘[It’s] a “cautious” huge sigh of relief to get back to some degree of normality and it will be great to see many colleagues back in the dealership in a Covid-safe environment for both them and our customers,’ he said.
‘Let’s hope talk of a third wave in August/September is contained and lockdown becomes a thing of the past.
‘I am really proud of the team at TrustFord and blown away that our Q1 performance is significantly ahead of the same period 2020 before the full impact of the lockdown – an amazing achievement!’
Business has been strong for Umesh Samani too, owner of Specialist Cars in Stoke-on-Trent, and chairman of the Independent Motor Dealers Association.
He told us: ‘April 12 opening – what the whole industry has been waiting for. In reality, business has been good for me and the best 12 months in my 24 years of trading!’
But while Samani and other dealers have performed well with showrooms locked and having to rely on online sales, he believes business will go back to traditional ways.
A wave of optimism
‘I believe as car sales go back to “old-fashioned” sales as such, 65/70 per cent of buyers will revert to viewing, test drives and wanting to visit rather than the “click-and-delivery”, while 35/30 per cent will be more than happy to buy unseen and opt for the home delivery, but I don’t believe that’s the future,’ he said.
Adam Turner, managing director of Chorley Group, has seen a real pick-up in inquiries and demand for used cars. And while he’s thrilled at reopening on April 12, like others he was disappointed at the lack of common sense during previous lockdowns.
He told Car Dealer: ‘We are expecting a strong performance in used cars across the businesses after many customers have wanted to reserve and finalise the deal in person on site.
‘Web traffic has increased by 15 per cent over the past two weeks and inquiry levels are also encouragingly increasing.
‘Our click-and-collect/home delivery has delivered over 90 per cent of Q1 2020, with profits at 100 per cent year-on-year.
We feel optimistic it’s going to be a positive time for the car industry, and we are expecting to see trade increase for the next two to three months
‘The lack of effectiveness of the lobbying has been disappointing for many in the industry as it does seem the industry voice wasn’t heard.
‘Overall, April 12 should be a huge leap towards the light at the end of the tunnel for everyone and a switch back to normality for the industry.’
Spencer Gray, director of Norwich-based used car dealership Spencers Car Sales, which was highly commended in the Used Car Dealership of the Year (Over 100 Cars) category in the 2019 Car Dealer Used Car Awards, told us: ‘We are really looking forward to getting back open on April 12.
‘We feel optimistic it’s going to be a positive time for the car industry, and we are expecting to see trade increase for the next two to three months as customers are looking forward to getting back looking around on the garage forecourts.
‘This will also encourage our sales team to have customers back in front of them.’
Return of pent-up demand
Not only showrooms will be unlocked today but also consumer confidence and pent-up demand, believes Hendy Group boss Paul Hendy.
‘Will there be pent-up demand? Yes, I believe there will be,’ he told Car Dealer.
‘What we as an industry have been able to achieve in quarter one is little short of remarkable in terms of unit sales with showrooms and forecourts closed – a real testament to everyone’s ability to adapt.’
When asked if April will be the new March, Hendy said: ‘In my opinion, April will not be the new March, it will be the new April, and will be the start of a hugely energised quarter!’
SW Car Supermarket is expected a wave of pent-up demand too.
Speaking to Car Dealer, operations director John Marshall said: ‘Pent-up demand is going to be cross-industry. That means renewed consumer confidence will drive a wave of the “want to change” customers into the showroom who may not have needed to change but now showrooms are open will take the plunge.
Like Hendy Group, Swansway doesn’t expect April to be the ‘new March’ as predicted by some in the industry, but director Peter Smyth is still optimistic – there’s even some nervous excitement within the business.
He told us: ‘April is a short month if you take the Easter break into consideration.
‘It is also the start of a new quarter for the OEMs, so there isn’t as much pressure to sell as many cars as you can before the month and quarter end like there is in March.
‘We were also surprised by the amount of units we sold across new and used cars in March and we can only hope this continues after we reopen fully.’
Smyth added: ‘We are relieved to be reopening yes. The other directors and I have been out visiting our sites this last week to ensure they are all ready and safe for reopening.
‘There’s an element of nervousness for reopening, but it is definitely that of nervous excitement.’
Will Blackshaw, managing director of dealer group Blackshaws, is hopeful of a strong few months too.
He said: ‘Looking at March 1 to April 8 web traffic versus the same period in 2019, we have seen a 59 per cent increase.
‘Our used March business outperformed 2019 used, so I would say all the signs are there for a strong April, May, June.’
Blackshaw added that with holidays still uncertain, many people will be spending cash on home improvements and new cars.
‘It’s nice to have cars back in the showroom for Monday – but we must continue to remember Covid-19 is not over and we shouldn’t become complacent with our customer and staff safety during this period.’
Meanwhile, Simon Close, director of Close Motor Company, which has dealerships in Corby and Peterborough, told us: ‘I’m absolutely delighted and thrilled to be able to open our doors fully, offering a Covid-safe environment for our customers old and new to visit.
‘Launching two new brands – Suzuki and Isuzu – in lockdown and maintaining good sales with our existing partner Mitsubishi isn’t ideal, and although we’ve invested heavily in our online showroom and can completely transact remotely, it only reaches a certain percentage of buyers.
‘We’re a company that prides itself on “being human” not robotic and are really looking forward to the future.
‘However, it’s not a given right that customers will come and buy off us – we need to make sure we are not complacent and do things even better than before lockdown 3.’