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The latest South Carolina Public Radio News reports on the spread of the coronavirus and efforts to fight it.

Auto Dealers Adjusting to COVID-19 World

South Carolina car dealers, like other businesses, have come up with innovative ways to continue sales in the wake of COVID-19.
Tut Underwood/SC Public Radio
South Carolina car dealers, like other businesses, have come up with innovative ways to continue sales in the wake of COVID-19.

As an essential business, automobile service has continued to operate relatively normally even as other facets of the car business have been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.    Like other businesses, auto dealers have made numerous adjustments to keep their employees and clients safe and retain the confidence of their customers.   Some of these adjustments were outlined by Sims Floyd, executive vice president of the South Carolina Automobile Dealers Association:

"If you want your car serviced, we'll come pick it up now and we'll spray it down and we'll wear a mask and gloves.  And then we'll service it and spray it down again and and deliver the car back to the customer.  That is not a very efficient way to handle service, but it's the new way that we're handling a lot of service now. "

That dedication to service while keeping safe was echoed by Josh Waters of the Midlands' Jim Hudson Automotive Group.

"We are checking temperatures daily, both of employees and customers, following CDC guidelines.  Anybody with a fever, we're not allowing in.  Our employees are wearing facemasks.  We are practicing social distancing both with our employees and with our customers.  We've rearranged some waiting areas, so if a customer's waiting on his car to be serviced, we've moved chairs out or marked chairs as 'do not sit here' chairs, just to practice that social distancing.  Or course, we have hand sanitizers.  We've encouraged employees, if at any point they don't feel well, to stay home, don't come in."

Waters said his dealers have actually always done vehicle pickup and delivery for service, but it has received more emphasis in the time of COVID.  But another big change has come to the sales of cars, thanks to technology.  "We can do a lot online.  A customer can say 'I'm interested in this vehicle,' we can send him videos and pictures of that vehicle.  We even do things like FaceTime with them where they can see the vehicle and ask questions of the salesman while the salesman's in the vehicle. 

"We do test drives at home.  We'll bring a vehicle to you as a customer to test drive at home...you buy the car, we'll deliver it to your house, you'll sign the paperwork at your house, so you really don't even have to come into the dealership to purchase a vehicle." 

According to Floyd, consumers are responding well to the changes in the car buying experience, though in different ways.  "You've got some people that are completely fine with coming in the dealership, and they can see you cleaning all the time, and that makes them happy and comfortable.  And you've got some people that, because of some heath vulnerability, they still are not ready to come back into the retail environment.  And so we're having to cater a little bit different way."  It's much more like a boutique operation, said Floyd.

As a result of their efforts, business that slowed in April and May is back with pent up demand in June and July, said Floyd.  Both men said business is back to normal, if not better.   A problem for some dealers was that the pandemic slowed the production of autos, so getting enough vehicles to sell was tough for some.  Fortunately, said Waters, his dealers keep about a 90-day supply of cars on hand, so they haven't had that particular problem. 

Oddly, Waters said, with all the changes and adjustments his company has had to make because of the coronavirus epidemic, the biggest difference to him between the pre-COVID and post-COVID worlds is the lack of physical contact.  

"As a society, we love to shake hands.  If I was to see you in person, I'm gonna stick my hand out to shake your hand.  If you're a customer that I've worked with for many years, I may even give you a hug.  And that has stopped.  And that is often awkward, because some customers or even our staff, they may stick their hands out just out of habit.  So not to be able to shake hands or give hugs or pat 'em on the back, that has been the hardest part, I would say, for our dealerships." 

Both Floyd and Waters believe that some aspects of dealers' COVID adjustments, such as online purchases from home, and home delivery and test drives of cars, are here to stay even after the pandemic passes.  Floyd said he is impressed by the way people have reached out and cooperated and shown empathy for others during the pandemic, which he believes will bode well for society in the future.