Car dealerships in Williams Lake have seen the COVID-19 pandemic driving changes in business and ways of doing business. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

COVID-19 drives changes for Williams Lake car dealerships

Businesses are adapting to pandemic restrictions

Williams Lake automotive dealerships have made and seen changes in their businesses since the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold in mid-March.

Remaining open the whole time because they were deemed an essential service, dealerships immediately beefed up sanitization regimes, ensured physical distancing was possible, reduced staffing and in some cases started doing more work online.

Four local businesses shared with the Tribune what they have experienced in the last few months.

“The health and safety of our community is at the forefront of our business,” said Lake City Ford general manager and owner David Wong.

“We are all in this together.”

As more and more businesses open up, Wong said the public and each business will respond to the pandemic in different ways.

“Some businesses may ask customers to wear a mask, and it is up to us a consumers to respect those wishes.”

In addition to adopting safety protocols for the pandemic, the Ford company is offering purchasing incentives, he added.

The sales and service departments have been busy throughout the pandemic and offering door-to-door service, he said.

Recently Lake City Ford donated 100 protective face shields to Cariboo Memorial Hospital that were produced at Ford’s manufacturing plant in Windsor, Ont.

Wong said Ford had been working closely with UNIFOR and the government health agencies to produce the face shields and distribute them across Canada.

Read more: COVID-19: Lake City Ford donates protective face shields to Cariboo Memorial Hospital

Heartland Toyota general manager Gerald Overton said most of his employees worked from home initially and the shop remained open with a skeleton crew.

“Our mechanics have to wear masks and use seat covers and clean the inside of each vehicle they work on,” Overton said.

Glass dividers were installed at the service counter and Overton said he went with something more permanent as he believes it will be part of doing business in the new normal.

When a customer buys a new vehicle, normally an insurance company representative arrives to go over the paper work, he added.

Since COVID-19 precautions went into place, most of the paper work is done over the phone and the insurance person arrives at the dealership only for the papers to be signed.

If it is after 4:30 p.m., then someone from Toyota takes the customer down to the insurance office.

Business has been ‘surprisingly’ OK, Overton said, noting the North American plants shut down for six weeks so the numbers of some core models are down across B.C.

“Services are pretty good,” he said. “Sales are down for sure, but with that being said, Toyota is offering 180 days no payment on new vehicles.”

Doug Peters, general sales manager for Cariboo Chevrolet Buick GMC Ltd. said right out of the gate they started a ‘let’s bring the dealership to you,’ program where customers were told not to come in, but give the dealership a call and someone would go pick up their vehicle and bring it in.

“On the sales end of it we are doing videos on every new and used piece. If our customers are calling in and shopping online we can do everything on their turf,” Peters said.

They also stepped up sanitation, put placards on the floor to indicate physical distancing, and new tap and flash payment methods are coming into effect.

General Motor factories shut down and were making masks and last week the plant in Oshawa, Ont. signed a contract to build masks and materials needed for the COVID-19 crisis, Peters said.

“Factories are up running again and we are in a little bit of crunch for product, but quite honestly there is quite a demand for reliable used vehicles like crazy,” he added. “The used market has gone crazy.”

He said many people were laid off during the first few months, and people have started to return with the exception of a few sales personnel.

Eyeing the future, Peters thinks they will be doing less travel and meeting more on Zoom.

“You can set your calendar and meet for 15 minutes on a video conference with 200 people. There’s a lot of things we could do on video that will save time, money and effort.”

Read more: WorkSafe BC issues COVID-19 guidelines as businesses ready to reopen

Gustafson’s Dodge Chrysler Jeep general manager Kerry Gustafson said they went down to a skeleton staff in March, increased sanitization efforts and continue to limit the amount of people in the building at the same time.

He has not been trying to do anything online, and said things have been strictly ‘business as usual.’

“People still want to try out cars. Our lot traffic is very strong at both locations, even our Prince George location is good.”

Dodge Chrysler Jeep is offering no payment for 120 days, and Gustafson said about 50 per cent of customers would take up the offer.

“Over last year, we’ve seen a close to 50 per cent increase in business. When we went into this we already had our spring inventory on the ground when the factory shut down. We got lucky,” he added.

There is some pent up demand for vehicles and he’s noticing people in general aren’t worried about the pandemic.

He sees maybe one customer wearing a mask in a given day and the staff are keeping their distance.

“People are trying to shake hands when we do a deal with them, but I’ve told my staff, not to do that. And we’ve got hand sanitizer everywhere.”


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