Cork car dealerships report that sales volumes are strong since their Covid-19 lockdown ended over a month ago but that they may struggle to make up for lost ground, writes Áine Kenny
Not surprisingly, new car registrations last month slumped by over 70% compared with May 2019, according to the Society of the Irish Motor Industry.
Jackie Deasy of Noel Deasy cars on the New Mallow Road said shutting the business for such an extended period of time was "uncharted territory."
"We had never had to do anything like that in 40 years of the business" and had to deal with customers concerned about their finance payments and to be available for the breakdown services, as well as helping frontline workers who needed their cars for work, she said.
Preparing to go back to work was a big undertaking, involving putting into place hand sanitisers, floor markings, and perspex screens.
Servicing cars now involves a huge amount of new procedures, including cleaning keys, door handles and frames, steering wheels, gearsticks, handbrakes, armrests, infotainment controls, indicators, gloveboxes, seatbelt stalks, and foot pedals.
The process is repeated after each service and the air inside of the car is also cleaned.
The website became very important during the lockdown.
"You can shop for your car, you can see videos of the car, you can apply for finance and you can pay a deposit online. Technically if you didn't feel like you were in a position to come in, you could do the entire [car buying] experience online. The website is the best shop window at the moment," Ms Deasy said.
She hopes that the low car sales in the first half of the year will be made up now that the country has reopened.
"Many people are telling us they saved a deposit for a car because they weren't doing anything else," she said.
Tim Kelleher of Kelleher's car dealership in Macroom said it had done well since reopening its doors.
"We went into lockdown, but our workshop facility was still available to front line people, we would have an involvement with Gardaí. So we did have a service available in the event of emergencies," he said.
"Between the web connection and live chat, we were able to keep in touch with a lot of customers during the lockdown period," he said.
As for reopening, Mr Kelleher said that garages were suited to social distancing.
"We are back now six weeks and it has been a very positive return," he said.
In terms of sales, Mr Kelleher said: "It's proven something to me, you can do a certain amount of work on the web, but I think people will really want to come in and see the car."
He said that people may have had a certain amount of savings and possibly saved on not taking the foreign holiday.
Dermot O'Hara, general manager of MSL Cork, said the lockdown said he kept in close contact with the staff to make sure everybody was faring well. "We were very lucky that we had no staff members who got the virus," he said.
Reopening was a massive undertaking, however.
Hand sanitisers, masks and gloves are now available to staff and customers alike.
"We put an awful amount of work in the fortnight before we opened up. We had to reconfigure, we have 60% less cars in the showroom and our sales desks would have plastic partitions. Everybody is two metres apart," he said.
Mr O'Hara said services are now by appointment only.
"We guide people much more than usual, so people know exactly where they are going. It probably makes the customer experience more fluent," he said.
Mr O'Hara said he has been pleasantly surprised by how quickly sales have risen in the month since the business reopened.
"Our customers have come back to us. Our service department is very busy, as is our sales department," he said.
Online sales have also been vital.
"We would have done this previous to the lockdown. We sold a considerable number of cars over the phone, we have a virtual tool so we can remotely do a live Mercedes Benz viewing, and have a live chat with the customers to answer any questions. There's also an appraisal tool, we can value the car, we can also deliver the car," he said.
"We sanitise all vehicles before they go to a customer, both new and used cars. There's virtually no contact bar taking the keys," he said.
David Quirke, director of Blackwater Motors, said that the closure of the dealership came very quickly.
"However, we were still open for emergency services, so we had a skeleton staff in. We were only doing half days really, just for the Gardaí, the emergency response unit, couriers and frontline workers who needed repairs or breakdown assistance," he said.
Mr Quirke said reopening measures included hand sanitisation stations and perspex for reception and sales desks.
"We followed the HSE guidelines and since we came back, we had a HSA inspection. They had been doing random inspections of different companies and we happened to be one," he said.
"Our branch in Fermoy had an audit and we passed with flying colours, with some recommendations from the HSA also, which was great because from our point of view it reassures us that we are going about [safety] in the correct way," he said.
From a sales point of view, the traditional handshake to seal the deal is gone.
"We also had a lot of inquiries coming from online. People viewed cars online, they made a call asking if we had such a car or van and to send them more detail. We would then send them [more detailed] viewings of the vehicle."
However, Mr Quirke said most people still wanted to see the physical product before they buy.
"Volkswagen is launching a new electric vehicle, it's an ID 3. A lot of people have pre-booked the car, but won't place the order until they actually sit into the car, feel it, touch it," he said.
"Realistically, it is the second biggest purchase in anybody's lifetime, outside of a house. People will still want to come and sit into the car and take it for a test drive, if possible."
Blackwater Motors reopened fully on May 18 and sales have been good, he said.
"People had 12 weeks of lockdown, perhaps they wanted to treat themselves. They are probably not going on any foreign holidays, so they might use the money to purchase a car or to put towards a deposit for financing a car," he said.
Used car sales are also on the rise, as are preorders for 202 vehicles.
"July is going to be a big month, we have seen an increase in order intake for the July 202 plate," he said.
"It has been very positive. I don't want to jinx it. Long may it continue."