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‘We must normalise socially distanced car showrooms’, says Devonshire Motors boss

Nathan Tomlinson, owner and dealer principal, Devonshire Motors

Devonshire Motors owner Nathan Tomlinson believes the car retail sector must move quickly to “normalise” socially-distanced car showrooms to avoid deterring anxious customers.

Tomlinson, operator of the multi-award-winning Mitsubishi solus operation in Devon, was quick to launch his own ‘DM Stay Safe’ marketing campaign to reassure customers of the COVID-19 measures put in place to ensure their health during the current pandemic.

But he now believes that retailers should consider shifting their message to allow customers to feel more accepting and at ease with “the new normal”.

“I can’t help thinking that the overriding message from the sector has been of stringent measures and what customers considering a return to the showroom are seeing are staff in masks and temperature checks at the doors,” he said.

“Reassurance continues to be very important, but we need to make people realise that they are free to come out and buy a car. The message needs to be more welcoming.”

Tomlinson acknowledged that the need to cater for a variety of potential customers in a way that makes them feel comfortable remains a key priority, stating: “We’ll contact one customer and they are literally racing through the door and then the next is in full-lockdown and daren’t come out of the house.”

But he added: “In many cases I’m concerned that people aren’t being object and are still basing their decisions on fear.”

A report published by Auto Trader this week revealed that over a third of car buyers remain cautious about visiting a dealership, despite healthy levels of demand which look set to continue.

Out of more than 6,300 survey respondents, half of car buyers (53%) said they would either be likely (38%) or very likely (15%) to visit, over a third (37%) were unlikely (24%), or very unlikely (13%) to visit.

In an interview with AM this week Arnold Clark chief executive, Eddie Hawthorne, said that car retail had to leverage its obvious advantages over other retail sectors to make customers feel at ease.

He said: “The motor trade should be able to take advantage of the fact that it can still offer a far more relaxed buying experience than any other retail sector.

“We won’t have queues of customers stood outside our doors in the rain and if customers continue to embrace the new online preamble that has been put in place in sales and aftersales the experience offered by car retailers should be far superior to any other retail sector.”

Hawthorne told AM that Arnold Clark’s aftersales customers had been quick to adapt to its digitally-driven aftersales processes which have seen customers keep to their appointment and service desk transaction times cut from around a quarter of an hour to just three minutes, on average.

Hawthorne said that, while there were thermometers at each of the group’s retail locations, there would be no temperature checks at the doors of Arnold Clark showrooms.

“We have said to our staff ‘if your temperature’s up and you’re not feeling well, don’t come to work. Stay at home for seven days,” he said.  “We’re also saying the same to customers.”

Hawthorne added: “We have to learn to police ourselves.”

Peter Vardy chief executive, Peter Vardy, told AM this week that the group had sold more than 2,000 cars online during April and May, but he is keen to see customers re-enter the group’s showrooms when the Scottish Government gives the green light to re-open their doors.

His business has invested in high-tech cameras at the doors of each of its dealership locations which can detect a member of staff or customer’s temperature on their approach to the building.

Vardy, who believes that the system in less invasive than a handheld device, helping customers to feel relaxed, but added: “No-one will be allowed in if their temperature is high.”

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