Is it safe to visit car dealers now? The huge steps motor trade is taking to make showrooms safe ahead of reopening tomorrow

Time 9:16 am, May 31, 2020

Dramatic changes to ensure customers feel safe and confident to visit car dealerships again have been rolled out ahead of showrooms reopening tomorrow (June 1).

After a 10-week wait, car dealers in England will finally reopen their doors again to the public tomorrow – but many customers will still be wondering: Is it safe to visit a car dealer?

While a shift to online car sales is likely to continue to grow in popularity in the coming months, the importance a car showroom plays in the theatre of a car sale cannot be underestimated.

The industry has worked incredibly hard since the announcement was made that they could go back to work on June 1 to ensure their showrooms are Covid-19 Secure.

Following the steps laid out in the guidelines – which we have summarised here – car dealers of all shapes and sizes up and down the country have changed the way they operate to ensure maximum safety to customers.

From unaccompanied test drives to ensure social distancing is maintained, to perspex screens between sales people and customers – car dealers are likely to look very different for the foreseeable future.

However, while car dealers in England prepare to roll out the red (sanitised) carpets to customers tomorrow, showrooms in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain shut.

In Northern Ireland, car dealers will be allowed to reopen on June 8. But there is still no news in Wales or Scotland as to when showrooms will be allowed to open their doors.

Scottish Motor Trade Association chief executive Sandy Burgess has written to the Scottish government asking them to follow England’s lead and reopen showrooms now. But while there are hopes the trade there won’t have long to wait – there’s still no solid news.

Meanwhile, in England, customers will be allowed to visit showrooms again tomorrow and the motor trade will be hoping there will be some pent up demand to bolster business. 

The government has advised against the use of public transport which many think could boost used car sales and cheaper new models – and manufacturers are already readying their tempting offers to get punters back in the showroom.

This could then be followed by a poorly-kept scrappage scheme secret – possibly coming as soon as July – which would help incentive more buyers back into showrooms.

The Sunday Times has today reported the chancellor is said to be planning an emergency Budget for the week of July 6 while the prime minister Boris Johnson will make a speech to ‘put Britain back on its feet’ at the end of June. Could that be when a stimulus scheme for the motor trade is announced?

And with news this week from France that the government has pumped £7.1bn into the car industry – with an incentive aimed at increasing car sales – the hope for a similar scheme here has increased a notch.

Tomorrow, dealers will start to be able to assess what demand there is out there. 

Vertu Motors boss Robert Forrester has been regularly tweeting about the group’s sales success during lockdown and told BBC Breakfast this week that the group has sold cars during the lockdown and internet sales and enquiries are rising.

He said: ‘People are doing far more on the internet and our online sales have gone up quite considerably. We sold 650 cars last week as a group without a single test drive and not one person coming into a showroom.’

In a live interview in one of his showrooms, he said there will be a number of changes when customers return to showrooms.

Forrester said: ‘There will be a number of differences. Showrooms have one-way systems, hand sanitising, there will be people with masks and we have perspex screens to protect customers and colleagues.

‘The other difference is of all the colleagues, when they arrive, have their temperatures checked before they start work – I have had my temperature checked this morning.’

Car manufacturers have been busy shouting about the changes their dealer partners have been making ahead of the restart too.

Jaguar Land Rover UK managing director Rawdon Glover said: ‘We are clear it is essential to operate in a new way that safeguards our customers and retail partners. 

‘We’ve worked hard, in particular over the past few months, with our network and relevant industry bodies to develop a set of guidelines to ensure we achieve the highest standards.

‘While the Jaguar and Land Rover retail environment is very well suited to achieve this with fully trained staff, we also have a range of other ways our customers can interact with us, whether virtually or using ‘at home’ services.’

All 173 Jaguar Land Rover dealers will reopen tomorrow with many beginning to deliver the new Defender – just one of the new car launches hit by the pandemic.

Rawdon explained that his dealers have implemented a number of safety measures including floor markings to aid social distancing, opening of non-fire doors, availability of hand sanitiser to customers and more frequent cleaning of washroom facilities – and staff will even wear face-masks. 

The latter isn’t something that’s been widely pushed – the guidelines say face masks are not mandatory and it should be remembered they are more for protecting the safety of others, not the wearer.

FCA dealers have prepared for the restart by implementing a number of remote services – including the ability for customers to send in videos and images of their trade-ins for valuations.

Arnaud Leclerc, managing director FCA UK, said: ‘Throughout the planning process the health and safety of all our employees and customers has been our primary focus and it will remain so.

‘We have consulted extensively with experts to develop this reopening strategy that minimises all risks while allowing staff to return to work and offer our valued customers the support they need.’

He said new cars will be sanitised before handover and sales staff will walk customers through the features of their new vehicle via online video. 

Unaccompanied test drives will be available, but the brand stresses they must be booked in advance, and ample time will be left between bookings for all vehicles so they can be thoroughly sanitised.

While there has been little direction on exactly how to sanitise a car before sale – following sensible cleansing and sanitisation regimes, as you would for a showroom, would be sensible. 

In Nissan showrooms, MD Andrew Humberstone says regular sanitisation will be key. 

Showroom vehicles and surfaces will be cleaned regularly while staff and customers will follow strict social distancing regulations. Nissan customers will also be able to take solo test drives and, at many sites, request contactless vehicle deliveries.  

Humberstone said: ‘We are delighted that our dealer partners across England will be able to re-open their doors from next week, and look forward to welcoming our customers back into showrooms.

‘With the actions being taken to prioritise safety, our customers and employees can feel confident that Nissan dealers are taking every precaution.’

For those customers who still don’t want to visit showrooms, Nissan dealers will also offer online chat services for assistance with a sales or service visit, and at many sites, increased use of video to explain key vehicle features during a handover.

Mitsubishi dealers are looking forward to getting back to work, explained managing director Rob Lindley.

‘While we’re delighted that the wheels of our dealer network in England can start turning again we want this to happen in the safest and most responsible way possible,’ he said.

‘To ensure we get off to a flying start we’ve been preparing our operations, and those of our dealer network, to work successfully within the ongoing safety guidelines and we have an ample supply of new and used vehicles; parts and accessories to meet demand.’

The brand is still offering free deliveries to customers who buy online.

Many dealers will continue to offer tweaked click and collect services – or if they’re clever a safer-worded reserve and collect option – for those customers who continue to purchase online and want the easiest possible handover.

Over at Mazda the deals have already been cracked out with the brand hitting the ground running with an ‘An Offer For Our Time’ – a zero per cent APR PCP deal across its range. 

Peter Allibon, sales director at Mazda Motors UK, said: ‘For those wanting to continue with their purchase, we felt it was important to communicate our best ever offer and reassure customers that there are flexible purchasing options to support individual circumstances, and they are still able to configure their chosen Mazda online prior to visiting their local dealer.  

‘As we come out of the lockdown I anticipate high demand for our products so I would encourage customers to contact their local dealer to book a showroom appointment to avoid disappointment.’

The Mazda deals are unlikely to be the last.

Other brands are offering buy-now-pay-many-months in the future and as dealers get back to work, it’ll be open season on offers.

SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes is convinced dealers reopening tomorrow will ‘get the economy moving again’.

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He said: ‘As our campaign said, it will help manufacturing, retail and the Exchequer and can be done whilst ensuring safety of customers, staff and other visitors.’

While showrooms might look a little different when customers start visiting them again, the service and deals they receive won’t be. 

James Baggott's avatar

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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