Over the Curb: It’s Not Business as Usual

March 12, 2020

The business has navigated unprecedented hardships before, and DealerSocket’s First Pencil blog believes there’s no reason it won’t do it again.

By Gregory Arroyo

Remember the period between late 2007 and 2009, when the housing crash that caused the credit crisis led to the Great Recession? The market was tough to read, and the used-car guides were all over the map.

Dealers that bulked up on big trucks and SUVs were stuck with a lot full of them, as gas prices reached $4 a gallon and finance sources tightened up. Any car buyer with below-prime credit couldn’t get approved, as banks weren’t sure where car buyers — particularly those with investment properties — would land and finance companies were dead in the water.

The good news right now is we’re not experiencing any of those market dynamics. But news surrounding COVID-19 (a.k.a. the Coronavirus) has certainly heated up in recent days.

Hearing about Tom Hanks was disconcerting. So was hearing about the National Basketball Association’s decision to suspend the season, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first major professional athlete to test positive for the virus. Now his teammate, star Donovan Mitchell, has tested positive.

As of March 10, there have been at least 116,000 coronavirus cases worldwide. About 64,000 people have recovered, and 4,000 have died. Here in the United States, multiple states are under a state of emergency.

With all that said, the one thing I love about this business is how opposed it is to doom-and-gloom talk. In fact, just yesterday, the founder of a car dealer Facebook group I belong to urged all admins not to allow panic to take over the group.

“I don’t want negative talk about this affecting us,” he wrote.

It made me think of this great line from the first Avengers movie: “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.”

Hey, consumers who need a new car (or used) today will still need it tomorrow. Still, it’s not business as usual, so preparation is vital.

So, if you’ve loaded up with inventory the past couple of months to take advantage of tax season, monitoring aging will be key. And if you’re part of a group that engages in group trading, it’s time to dig into your inventory management systems to ensure vehicles are on the right lots. It’s not time to panic, but you should have exit plans in place.

I recall a story told to me back in 2009. A dealer in the Northeast took on a bulk of pickups in trades just before things got bad. Having dumped $5,000 to $7,000 into the vehicles, he refused to take a loss at auction when things did — even though he was losing money each day those vehicles sat on his lot. His patience was rewarded, however, as he ended up grossing $2,000 to $5,000 by waiting out the storm for a couple of months. Americans do love their trucks and SUVs.

You also need to fire up that CRM. Hey, you know you have customers reaching the end of their finance, lease, or warranty term. Vehicles also need to be serviced. Maybe it’s an excellent time to offer free service pickup and return.

And if you’re a dealer that dipped your toe in the digital retail waters — or maybe offer test-drive deliveries — today’s uncertainty represents an opportunity to really test those strategies.

So, start promoting those customer conveniences, and make sure your digital retail button stands out. In other words, remove any conflicting calls to action on your vehicle details and dedicated landing pages. Banner promotions on your search results pages and VDPs are a must.

Now, when it comes to your employees, I suggest not sticking your head in the sand. Management teams need to get educated on this virus, and communication will be critical. Care also needs to be taken when it comes to the cleanliness of your showroom, employee offices, and common areas.

With all that said, here’s what I do know in all this uncertainty: Every time this business faces a severe hardship, it always seems to come out the other side a better industry. I’m sure that will be the case once again.

Gregory Arroyo is the former editor of “F&I and Showroom” and “Auto Dealer Today” magazines. He now serves as senior manager of strategic content for DealerSocket. Email him at garroyo@dealersocket.com.