CORONAVIRUS

Pat McGrath, Dave Wright auto sales shift with pandemic

'People need to have transportation'

Customer Gary Bjornsen of Hiawatha, Iowa, talks to senior technician Stacy Miller about his driver's side mirror in the
Customer Gary Bjornsen of Hiawatha, Iowa, talks to senior technician Stacy Miller about his driver’s side mirror in the service department at Dave Wright Auto in Hiawatha, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The dealership has adapted their business during the pandemic. Workers wipe down steering wheels, door handles and controls as well as put on plastic seat covers when vehicles arrive. They also wipe them down before the vehicle is returned to the customer. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Transportation for many remains key during trying times, so local car dealerships are making necessary shifts to ensure automotive service and new vehicle sales can continue in a safe and efficient way.

“People need to have transportation, especially in a in a pandemic where public transportation and ride-shares are all shut down,” said Dave Wright, owner of Dave Wright Nissan Subaru in Hiawatha.

“If your car breaks down. it’s got to get repaired so you can get medical treatment or essential supplies for yourself or perhaps you are an essential worker.”

He noted there are circumstances on the sales side of the business that require people to purchase or lease a new vehicle, including getting in an accident that totals your vehicle or having a lease expire.

As with so many businesses, the pandemic has forced dealerships to focus on ways to use technology in the work they do, said Pat McGrath, owner of the Pat McGrath Family of Dealerships.

“The biggest thing is for us is digitizing sales,” McGrath said. “We are doing a lot of video. If someone reaches out to say they are interested in a vehicle, we’ll go ahead and do a complete walk around of it by video and show them how the vehicle is equipped.

“Then we follow up with phone or with Zoom, which has become pretty popular for us.”

McGrath said when customers are ready to purchase, all they have to do is “wet sign” the contract, which he said has also happened at customers’ homes with social-distancing guidelines intact.

‘Learning a lot’

Shifts are happening on the service side of their businesses, as well.

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“A lot of communication is either by text or phone so that a lot of the groundwork can be completed before anybody needs to arrive at the building,” Wright said.

Some dealerships are offering pickup and delivery for cars that need to be serviced.

“Our Buick store, on Monday morning, had picked up 10 cars by 8:30 that morning,” McGrath recalled.

“That was just not something we had done much in the past, but I can tell you it’s something we’re going to continue to the future. We are really learning a lot.”

“Customers never have to leave their home,” agreed Wright, noting that the manufacturers also have waived some of their requirements on customer repair orders to help move the process along and make it easier to limit customer contact.

In addition, manufacturers have increased incentives for purchasing new vehicles during the pandemic.

“Some have been advertising zero percent interest for as much as 84 months,” Wright said. “These incentives are better than they have ever been if you feel safe shopping during this pandemic.”

McGrath agreed.

“It’s not a sales pitch, but I’ve not seen anything like it where manufacturers are offering no payments for 80 to 100 days, “ he said.

He noted that Ford Motor, for example, is offering to pay for the first three months, then defer the next three months’ payments.

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“We are also seeing the financial institutions being very open to people being on unemployment, which is not typical,” McGrath said.

McGrath added that, “There’s going to be some real positives for us to come out of this to be a better company. There’s no question business has slowed down, but it’s kind of giving us an opportunity to say how do we digitize things and how do we interact with our customers.

“And our buildings have never been cleaner.”

Keeping morale up with staff is important though.

“We’ve been trying to do some videos and have some fun sharing who we are,” Wright said. “We are really trying to pay attention to make sure we notice if someone seems to be a little down. We are checking in on them.

“And we are sharing all our positive messages so everyone can hear some good news.”

McGrath said he’s also sending out a weekly video to staff with companywide updates. “We really coined the term, ‘Safety first and teamwork.’ People need to feel comfortable and safe.”

His company ordered 800 masks to distribute to employees.

“We want to be sure that everyone is comfortable,” McGrath said. “Service is already nicely spaced out because they work in bays, but we have spaced out our sales team in the showrooms.”

What will be the long term impact of the pandemic on business?

“We have seen recessions and we had the flood and those certainly brought their own challenges,” Wright recalled.

He noted when gas prices soared and truck and SUV sales tanked — but thanks to incentives from manufacturers, his dealership was able to sell its inventory.

“But with this, there is so much unknown and it’s bigger than anything I’ve been through during 15 years of owning this dealership.”

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Despite incentives, sales are down. Wright noted the industry is seeing a trend of about 35 percent of consumers putting off buying decisions.

“So there could be a large number of consumers coming back to the market at once,” Wright said.

He said at his dealership they are down about 40 percent for the month of April in new-vehicle sales year over year. McGrath said they are forecasting that they would be done 25 percent over last year, even though heading into the pandemic they were up for the year.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.