With local public transportation options limited and car-shares currently prohibited in Summit County during the COVID-19 crisis, private vehicles have once again become a lifeline for those who still need to get to a worksite, grab groceries or even reach health care services.
Across the United States, automobile dealers are coping with local restrictions on retail auto sales, but in Colorado, dealerships and their service departments have been recognized as essential services — with some new controls on how sales are conducted. Auto manufacturers have also rolled out incentive programs to make it easier to finance a new vehicle or to defer payments until the summer, as well as prioritizing online sales.
J.R. Musser, general sales manager at Summit Ford, says he’s been able to keep a full workforce in both his sales and service departments, thanks to the cooperation of state and county governments. Business, he says, has been difficult, but he hopes that being included in the current iteration of essential services helps provide some stability, and prevent layoffs.
“Day by day over the last month, everything changed and rules that were in effect at 9 a.m. were different by 4 p.m., which is pretty challenging,” he says. “When we were initially not on ‘OK or not OK’ list, we contacted the board of county commissioners, and Elisabeth Lawrence did a great job of helping us get a lifeline to operate. We’re very fortunate to have the designation we do.”
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He also credits the assistance of Alpine Bank, which has been accommodating in offering the dealership flexibility with payroll and operating costs, as sales volume has waned.
Musser says social distancing rules meant the closure of Summit Ford’s showroom, but the business has adopted a policy of allowing outdoor vehicle walkarounds for customers, as well as conducting sales transactions either online or on the phone.
“It’s the best we can do, as we continue to walk the tightrope that the state has put out for us,” he adds. “We’re doing the best to be good corporate citizens, and we shut the showroom to preserve employee health.”
Jeff Zeiter, general manager at Groove Subaru, which also sells Jeep, Ram, Dodge and Chrysler products, said March actually proved to be the busiest month in the dealership’s history for service volume, as he says many customers finally had time on their hands to have recall or maintenance work completed.
“We’ve been bringing vehicles in and doing full sanitizing to help keep our technicians healthy, and we also offer local pickup and delivery for most services,” Zeiter says. “We are here, if you need to get work done.”
Zeiter says Groove has also switched to online or phone transactions for vehicle sales, and can deliver new vehicles to customers’ homes or offices — and even offer fully sanitized, come-to-you test drives for likely customers, without a salesperson in the car.
He says customers have largely been understanding of the changes and are still free to drive through the dealership’s lot to look at new models, though every day is now like Sunday when it comes to a hands-off shopping experience.
And with some new flexible payment deferral and zero-interest financing deals from both of the manufacturer families he represents, Zeiter says it’s an unusually affordable time to buy a new vehicle, for those who have the resources to do so.
“I have had to say ‘no’ to the occasional person who’s contacted us and offered us half the retail price for a new vehicle,” he says. “Things aren’t quite that bad. We all believe this will pass.”