Car retail bosses have voiced concern that a failure to re-open car showrooms in-time for the March number plate change will impact jobs and the economy, claiming "politicians have no understanding of business”.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA) have both now called on Government to allow businesses to reopen their doors to car buyers “as soon as it is safe to do so”.
But retailers told AM that MPs have to show a better understanding of the impact of continued closures in March and allow the re-opening of their spacious, socially-distanced retail environments.
Their comments came as a consumer survey carried out by Parkers on behalf of AM showed that – despite the offer of click and deliver car retail during COVID-19 ‘Lockdown 3’ – 64% of car buyers will not proceed with a car purchase without a test drive.
Meanwhile, only 15% of the Parkers audience agreed with the statement “I would not feel safe inside a dealership at the moment”.
Nathan Tomlinson, dealer principal at Devonshire Motors, said: “To date I think our sector has proved beyond any doubt that operating an open showroom correctly poses little, if any, increased risk of COVID-19 transmission and getting showrooms open for March is absolutely essential to support dealership profitability in 2021.”
He added: “We must consider what impact a poor Q1 will have on job security and even business longevity for the automotive sector.
“Equally, as we race towards 2030 we cannot possibly introduce consumers to new EV product, technology and culture without some of the more traditional elements of sales process.
“Online and digital retailing has proven to be a very successful short-term solution to a closed showroom, but to take customers on a journey and provide the support they need to experience and understand suitability of something absolutely brand new and unlike anything they’ve experienced before without giving them the time and tools they need is a huge barrier to adoption.”
JCB Group managing director, Jonathan Bischoff, described his car dealership sites as “completely COVID secure”, adding: “With March fast approaching it is vital that the industry is given the opportunity to maximise the new plate change sales and as importantly the government to receive the VAT revenue from these sales.
“After many months of disruption across the industry and the fact that our premises are, in more cases than not, more COVID secure than supermarkets and garden centres, we should be added to the list of ‘fully open’ businesses.”
Bischoff added: “Our staff are well versed in managing customers in a safe way, by utilising appointment schedules and following strict processes with regards numbers on site, something that is not always evident in other industries.”
TrustFord chairman and chief executive, Stuart Foulds, said: “From an industry point-of-view Government should allow the re-opening of car showrooms. They are spacious, COVID safe environments and everything is in place to ensure safe trading.
“The problem with politicians is that they have no understanding of business, to be blunt.”
Foulds once again voiced his frustration at COVID-19 legislations which prevented click and collect or click and deliver trading in Northern Ireland, which had proved devastating to businesses across the Irish Sea during lockdown.
Jon Atherton, joint managing director of Rainworth Skoda, said: “With most main dealers having spacious showrooms with less cars in at the moment and one-way systems in place, I can’t see any issues why we shouldn’t be open.”
At Swansway Garages, director Peter Smyth said that it was a case of “the sooner the better” for car dealership re-openings, but he said: “I’m pretty much resigned to trading without showrooms during March as it stands.
“Having said that, an early re-opening that allowed us to embrace our usual March trading would be a huge boost, a huge bonus for the entire sector.”
Last week car buying research website Parkers surveyed its audience to guage appetite or car dealership re-openings on behalf of AM.
It found that the loss of a test drive offering could be hampering sales during lockdown, with 64% of respondents stating that they would not buy a car without one.
And while only half (47%) of respondents agreed that it would be “fine for car showrooms to be open if they take precautions”, only 15% agreed with the statement “I would not feel safe inside a dealership at the moment”.
Parkers editor, Keith Adams, told AM: “There is clearly some consumer uncertainty over being in showrooms at the moment, but with almost half of car buyers saying that it's OK for them to be open, there's a great deal of pressure on dealerships to open up at the earliest opportunity.
“The fact that so many people also need a test drive before making the decision to purchase means that the longer they stay closed, the more damage is being done to the industry through lost sales.
“I certainly back the NFDA and SMMT's call to open up showrooms at the earliest opportunity. Afterall, a car dealership must be the easiest business in which to maintain social distancing.”