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COVID-19 car retail recovery ‘like starting a completely new business’

Vertu Motors' CEO Robert Forrester

Planning for a car retail group’s recovery from the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown has been likened to “starting a completely new business with your hands tied behind your back".

As Vertu Motors chief executive Robert Forrester told AM of his hopes that the sector’s recovery phase would bypass the need for a supermarket-style ‘click and collect’ process by moving straight to showroom re-openings, Clive Brook Volvo managing director, Clive Brook, outlined plans to redesign his business for a new trading environment.

  • AM is urging retailers to share their experience of trading during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak via its two-minute, quick-fire ‘COVID-19 car retail recovery survey’. Click here to take part.

Top AM100 retail group, Vertu, now has around 1,000 of its 6,000-strong workforce providing aftersales services and limited vehicle deliveries to keyworkers but is slowly returning more employees to work as demand begins to rise.

Forrester said: “The fact is that the government can’t simply pay for people to stay at home for months and months and months on end.

"You could just sit tight like traders in hybernation, and that might be the best thing to do, but from a moral point of view and from the point-of-view of some of our customers - who need cars and an aftersales service - we need to be open."

Forrester told AM that the group, which has paid its staff 80% of their average earnings, including commission payments, during their furlough period, would have to balance consumer demand with its desire to return staff to work.

Demand dictates return to work

However, the business has seen rising levels of enquiries and trade and has already set a "proxy re-opening date of May 11", according to Forrester.

Vertu sold 76 retail cars and 10 vans on Tuesday (April 28) and Forrester said that he was signing-off all sales personally.

He said: “Our deliveries are being handled by a logistics company in terms of longer distance sales. Our dealership staff may deliver a car if it’s required by an immobile NHS keyworker living nearby, however. It wouldn’t be in the public interest not to complete that kind of transaction.”

Forrester said that social distancing and vehicle sanitisation would mean that dealership standards were “very different” following the COVID-19 pandemic.

While measures being discussed the group include the removal of newspaper and customer coffee provision from showrooms, Forrester revealed that Vertu’s valeters had also remained away from the business as car vacuuming and washing processes had been removed from the aftersales process.

He said: “The focus is very much on cleansing the car and technicians are doing that as part of their roles. The cosmetic side of the aftersales process has been removed and I think our customers understand why that is.”

Vertu is also leaving part-exchange cars to stand for 24 hours before allowing staff to enter them to complete appraisal and valuation inspections.

Forrester said that the industry’s outlay on personal protective equipment (PPE) would be “not insubstantial”, adding that it would be a “major cost” to the sector as showroom re-opening commences.

Vertu will also ramp-up its investment in marketing, with increased digital marketing and return to TV next month to emphasise its efforts to enhance health and safety and the extent of its 'open for business' status.

Aversion to supermarket-style sales

While both are determined to achieve high health and safety standards, Forrester and Yorkshire-based Volvo retailer Brook voiced a desire to avoid the retail experience of supermarket visitors in recent weeks.

Clive Brook Volvo owner and managing director, Clive BrookForrester said that he hoped to bypass a “click and collect” partial re-opening of sales sites, while Brook said that the thought of customers queuing outside dealerships ahead of scheduled sales appointments was “absolutely terrible”.

“There is every chance that the majority of dealer visits will have to be by appointment, but we’ll have to manage that very carefully,” said Brook.

“If we can’t set our customers at ease when restrictions are eased and continue to make the experience of visiting the showroom as stress-free and fun as possible then we’ll be in real trouble.”

Brook currently has 43 of his business’ 65 staff on furlough and 22 at work.

His workshops at both his Huddersfield and Bradford retail sites are operating at 60% as staff get used to new distance and hygiene processes, with a view to being 100% operational within two weeks.

He also has a sales manager and consultant working full-time at each site to handle online sales enquiries.

Reopening 'more painful than being closed'

Brook described the recovery process as being “financially more painful than being closed” but said that the alternative – waiting until the lockdown is fully lifted – would create its own issues.

While Brook said that returning previously furloughed staff to dealership sites experiencing the current slump in trade was “a very delicate balance both ensuring we are all safe but economically remaining viable”, he said: “We’ll need to hit the ground running when the situation changes and I think a lot of businesses could return to find an awful lot of jobs need doing to get furloughed staff trained and re-established in the new trading environment and also to get the site back up to standard after weeks of lockdown.”

In coversation with AM, John Clark, chairman of the Aberdeen-based John Clark Motor Group, described his group's planning process for a return from the COVID-19 lockdown as being akin to "pushing the re-set button".

Brook described his plan for re-opening as “like starting a new business with your hands tied behind your back”.

But he was determined to make the right decisions in order to merge with a business primed to cater for customers in a completely new trading climate.

“So many lessons being learnt but I’m really clear that I wouldn’t rebuild my home exactly the same if it burnt to the ground and I’m not going to do that with my business,” he said.

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