LIMA — Coronavirus had a strange effect on the car-buying experience.
Customers wanted to buy cars.
Dealers wanted to sell cars.
There just weren’t as many cars available as either wanted, with major brands and their various suppliers shutting down for periods of time during the pandemic.
“It seemed like the consumer was still game to buy,” said Eric Martin, general manager of White’s Honda Toyota in Lima. “I don’t know why, if it was the stimulus or people just needed to get out and do something, because you couldn’t do anything. The customers were there, and the inventory was not.”
That made being transparent and customer-centric more important than ever, said Ryan Swaney, general sales manager at Lima Auto Mall, which sells new Chevrolet and Cadillac vehicles. The dealership already used internet-based pricing before the pandemic hit, listing its best price online since that’s where people started their shopping.
“I believe the customers are more knowledgeable about vehicles when they get here,” Swaney said. “When they shopped here, it was for a specific car, versus coming in and wandering the lot.”
The virus just forced the latest evolution for the car sales industry, said Joe Nott, vice president of Raabe Ford Lincoln in Delphos. That dealership began focusing on the service part of its sales.
“It’s meeting people where they’re at, and not demand someone come in to us to buy a car,” Nott said. “… We’re taking that service a little more forward, literally picking cars up for service and dropping them back off.”
That even included new cars. With people able to fill out most of their financials online, Raabe Ford Lincoln had some part-time employees who usually drive traded vehicles from one dealership to another. In the past year, they’ve gone to someone’s house to have them fill out the remaining necessary paperwork and bring the vehicle to the front door.
“We’re just starting to scratch the surface,” Nott said. “We know the demand is coming in an e-commerce world. Everybody wants to do everything as easily as possible.”
That’s included thinking about the customer base well outside of the Lima region. Nott noted Raabe Ford Lincoln recently sold a vehicle to a man from Austin, Texas, who came all that way to purchase the exact vehicle he wanted.
Steve Taylor, who owns multiple dealerships in Northwest Ohio including Taylor Kia of Lima, decided to use some of the pandemic to write a book, “Taylor Made,” which is available on Amazon. It describes how the car-buying process can be navigated.
“I wrote ‘Taylor Made’ to help more people learn how to navigate the car buying experience and actually enjoying buying a new car,” Taylor wrote via email. “It should be something fun and exciting, but unfortunately many people would rather get a root canal or serve on jury duty than have to shop for a new car. With this book, my goal is to educate more people on the entire car buying process and give them the tools needed to save time and money on their next purchase.”
Area dealers followed the same coronavirus safety precautions as anywhere else, cleaning regularly, mandating face masks and asking customers to socially distance 6 feet apart. They also used sanitizer in vehicles between test-drives, to avoid spreading the virus.
“We’re more aware of our work environment hygiene,” Nott said. “Break stations, restrooms, lunchrooms, we’re constantly cleaning, and we’ll likely continue beyond the pandemic with that. It’s the right thing to do, and it keeps people a little bit more safe from germs.”
Most area dealers found themselves focusing more on the internet. Swaney said Lima Auto Mall started advertising more online, although he said they still got good reactions from customers who saw advertising in the newspaper.
“We moved a lot of money from different sources to going digital,” Swaney said. “We want to reach our customers and be in front of our customers.”
The pandemic did help everyone better understand and appreciate consumers, Martin said.
“If there’s a silver lining in all of this — and I’ve been pushing it anyway — it’s about the customers first,” Martin said. “Car dealers have a bad reputation, and we try not to be that dealer. We’re trying to be very consumer-center. It’s helped get more buy-in from staff on that concept.”