Niagara car dealerships getting busier with eased restrictions

Sales were down by about 73 per cent on new and used vehicles in April at Mike Knapp Ford.

During a normal spring month, about 110 cars and trucks would be driven off the lot by new owners — but only 38 were sold last month, through online communication, said the president of the Niagara Street dealership in Welland.

Since May 4, dealerships across Ontario have the green light from Queen’s Park to open their showrooms by appointment only.

Mike Knapp, who has been selling cars in Niagara since 1997, said he expects May to be better.

“We’ll be about double where we were last month,” he said, estimating his sales team is on pace for 65 done deals by the time June arrives.

Before the pandemic, there were 11 people selling cars at his dealership but since COVID-19 arrived six salespeople were laid off.

“That’s something I’m a little nervous about. I’d like to see everybody back,” Knapp said.

Although there has been a significant decrease in sales, he said numbers still surpass what he anticipated the overall picture would look like early on.

Knapp said his team is following the advice of the Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council when it comes to test drives.

It says a photo of a driver’s licence should be handed over before someone takes a car for a spin — and that sales staff should not be passengers, for public health reasons.

“That’s what we’re doing,” said Knapp.

Appraising a used car for a potential trade-in is different during the pandemic, too.

“We’re trying to do more with pictures and videos, whereas before if we were putting a price on your car, we’d be in it and all over it,” said Knapp.

If someone is looking to upgrade their vehicle because their current ride is “making a noise,” he said, a further inspection will be required.

“Then we’ll put on our masks and gloves and drive it.”

He expects the internet will become the most travelled route for people looking to buy a new vehicle once the pandemic clears and businesses reopen.

“I think we’re going to have to be a lot better at selling online,” said Knapp.

Cheryle Slattery, vice-president of St. Catharines Mazda on Scott Street, said sales were down in April by more than 75 per cent. But since May 4, appointments are being scheduled regularly.

“We’ve actually sold a few vehicles, so things are improving,” she said, adding May’s sales “aren’t going to be where they were last year.”

There are many “great incentives” from Mazda on certain models that are drawing in customers, she said. Other dealers are also offering different kinds of deals, in hopes of enticing buyers to return.

The dealership has implemented physical distancing protocols, such as a drive-through area for people to drop their keys for service appointments. It keeps people separated by more than two metres in a waiting area, where they are required to wear masks and gloves, said Slattery.

She believes this will be a normal practice for now in her industry.

“We’re going to continue that — trying to minimize the contact for everyone until we’re further out of the woods.”

She said ordering parts from Japan, where Mazda is headquartered, hasn’t been a challenge during the pandemic.

One of the biggest impacts, though, has been the need to store new car inventory off-site after it all arrived for the spring. With customers starting to return, these vehicles are making their way to the Scott Street lot.

Another challenge has been locating enough personal protective equipment for staff and customers, including covers for shifters and steering wheels, she said.

Story Courtesy of Welland Tribune

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