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Automakers, dealers increase service and deals amid coronavirus crisis

Emergency room nurse Adam Blanton doesn’t have any extra time to drive 90 minutes to the car dealership, especially during a public health crisis.

Blanton is also a volunteer firefighter and U.S. Army reservist. So Blanton, 32, was thrilled to get his 2020 Chrysler Pacifica minivan delivered to him on a flatbed truck last Thursday afternoon.

“My wife works days. I work nights,” Blanton said. “She’s an X-ray tech. My wife is having another baby so we needed more room.”

Their family schedule is crazed, and concierge car service made their car purchase go more quickly, with signing papers at home.

“We are expanding and making it happen,” said Thad Szott, co-owner of Szott Auto Group in metro Detroit, whose flatbed truck delivered the Pacifica to Blanton.

“This is the best spirit of America right now,” said Szott. “Everybody is rising to the top. Some dealerships may go by appointment only or even close. Not us. People have to keep their vehicles running and get to the doctor or grocery store.”

The Detroit Three automakers and many of their dealers are finding creative ways to keep business moving as people hunker down in their homes amid the coronavirus crisis. All three companies offer finance deals on new cars, online shopping and other services. And if it means picking up customers’ cars for oil changes, repairs or delivering a new car to someone’s doorstep, dealers are doing it.

‘So people feel safe’

Analysts estimate the coronavirus crisis could cost the auto industry millions in car sales and service business. But most dealers can sell vehicles with little in-person interaction, a new report from J.D. Power said. It predicts the use of online buying and car delivery services will rise significantly given current conditions.

“Increasing consumer awareness of new ways to purchase and receive delivery of a vehicle will be a key activity for manufacturers and retailers in the coming weeks,” the J.D. Power report said.

Szott bought a flatbed truck for the specific purpose of delivering more vehicles to customers without adding mileage on their new cars, plus he’s delivering parts and repairs now. He noted that nearly all paperwork signing can be done at customers’ homes. If they don’t want to come to the dealership, it’s not even necessary anymore.

In fact, Hank the golden retriever is the Szott Auto mascot. He goes along for the ride helping with deliveries to brighten up customer moods.

Szott said his service centers are filled with Jeep, Toyota, Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Ford vehicles because they’re picking up vehicles from customers who would rather stay home.

For those who do venture into the store, Szott said, the dealership is cleaning and sterilizing every hour “so people feel safe.” The family has added air purifying devices in their Highland and White Lake dealerships with additional installation scheduled for Holly and Waterford.

Minimizing the damage

General Motors dealer Tony Young used to drive into his dealership, Young Chevrolet Cadillac Buick GMC in Owosso, each morning and see at least 15 cars lined up at the service lane for oil changes.

But last week, he started arriving to an increasingly familiar sight: “No one was lined up.”

So Young took to social media, posting on Facebook and sending out emails to customers offering home pickup and delivery service. He sends out drivers several times a day to a customer’s home to retrieve their car, leave them a loaner and then return the car when service is complete.

Young added 50 loaner cars to his fleet so customers who do come in for service can return home. If they want to wait, seats in his waiting room are spaced 6 feet apart for social distancing. And employees disinfect all vehicles serviced or appraised to keep them “germ free.”

“We’re just trying to be a little more proactive for people who are at home,” said Young, a co-owner in Young Auto Group, which has nine dealerships in Michigan, seven selling GM brands and two selling Kia.

For the month of March, Young Auto Group typically sells about 1,000 new and used cars across all nine stores, Young said. Now he is hoping to end the month with 500 to 600 car sales. Likewise, his service business is down by 50% for the month, he said.

“It hasn’t decreased as much as possible. If I wasn’t doing the pickup service, business would be down 70%,” Young said. “It’s going to decrease, but we’re trying to minimize the damage. I talk to other dealers where both service and sales are drastically down. But everyone’s starting to panic and employees are looking at you like what are we going to do?”

Young said the dealership group has not laid off any employees since 1981 despite tough times including the Great Recession and GM’s 2009 bankruptcy proceeding. He wants to keep it that way because good employees are hard to find.

“We’re going to make adjustments and try to make people whole in their pay and keep getting people in the door,” Young said. “You’ve also got to keep everyone healthy. In our business, we can’t work from home.”

‘Trying to stay open’

Bozard Ford Lincoln in St. Augustine, Fla., is also doing more pickup and delivery service, expanding from just a Lincoln concierge service to both Ford and Lincoln for new and used car customers, said Jeff King, vice president and general manager.

But like Young, the task of keeping workers healthy is another business challenge, which King is attacking head-on. He has reduced employment at all four buildings on-site as a safety precaution, from 225 total to not more than 50 people working together at once.

Other employees are working remotely, and King has staggered schedules to protect the company in case one group is somehow exposed, another group can continue running the business.

In addition, the dealership has set up restricted access to track who comes and goes from each building so that safety is the top priority — for employees and customers. If a worker isn’t scheduled to be in a building, they don’t go in. Everything is tracked and all dealer activity is monitored against exposure issues for coronavirus. King’s office nowadays is outside in a patio area.

Dealer entrances are staffed and everyone is asked whether they’ve been on a cruise, international travel or have a fever.

“If somebody does test positive, we can isolate one building and we will have all records,” he said. “We are trying to stay open. Currently, we have 675 government vehicles that are ordered that have not been delivered — police cars, trucks and others for municipalities all over the state of Florida.”

Business continues uninterrupted so far, with an increase in online traffic to the dealership’s website, he said.

“We had a customer last night that came in and said, ‘I don’t want to shake your hands, I’ve been on a cruise.’ Our people typed up the paperwork and had them sign outside,” King said.

His sales force is now split into two groups working alternating days, in case one group gets sick. “We don’t want to cross-contaminate,” King said.

GM ‘cares’

Last week, GM started rolling out its “Chevy Cares” alert to customers. The alert reads, “We know that these are uncertain and challenging times, and your vehicle should be the least of your worries.”

GM’s other brands have similar alerts going out that started in the last 48 hours.

It directs customers on how to find a nearby Chevrolet dealer and provides a customer assistance hotline at (800) 222-1010.

It also outlines some of GM’s initiatives:

—Over the weekend, GM turned on OnStar Crisis Assist, which connects customers to an adviser for help with emergencies and directions, including to hospitals or medical clinics. OnStar has about 16 million customers.

—GM gave all of these customers 3GB of data so they can use the car as a WiFi hot spot to stay connected on up to seven devices. The hot spot works within 50 feet of the vehicle.

—On Tuesday, GM Financial started offering 0% financing for 84 months on Chevrolet, GMC and Buick vehicles. Customers with top-line credit ratings may defer the first payment for 120 days.

—GM’s Shop Click Drive lets customers shop for a new vehicle online, get an estimated trade-in value and monthly payments, find the latest incentives and apply for credit. They may be able to have the vehicle delivered to their home.

Likewise, many GM dealers are offering service lane and sales pickup/drop-off services.

Finally, GM’s luxury brand offers Cadillac Live, where at-home customers can step into a virtual showroom and be paired with a “live ambassador” who takes them on a personalized, virtual tour of a vehicle and answers questions.

GM said those Cadillac dealers that provide a Certified Service Concierge service will send service experts on house calls to customers.

Ford lends a hand

Last Thursday, Ford announced a new program called “Built to Lend a Hand.”

It offers eligible new car buyers up to six months of payment relief and eligible new car customers in the U.S. can defer payments for up to three months. Ford will pay for three months, providing up to six months of payment peace of mind, it said.

Also, Ford dealers offer online sales with pickup and delivery for service where available.

To assure health safety, Ford said it has a new “vehicle disinfection process” for vehicles. It provides guidelines for dealers on using products approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for cleaning both their new and loaner vehicles.

On Monday, Ford Credit said existing U.S. customers affected by coronavirus may be offered payment options, including deferral, if they are having financial difficulty.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is also offering 0% financing for 84 months on select Ram Trucks, Dodge and Jeep vehicles and no payment for 90 days on select 2019 and 2020 models.



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