Car dealers in Scotland have told AM that they are exercising pragmatism rather than excitement over the re-opening of car showrooms as COVID-19 ‘Lockdown 3’ begins to ease in April.
Arnold Clark chief executive, Eddie Hawthorne, said he was conscious that the coronavirus pandemic would not simply “go away” in mid-April and welcomed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s managed easing of lockdown measures as part of a bid to avoid “another false dawn”.
Scottish Motor Trade Association (SMTA) chairman, Sandy Burgess, and John Clark Motor Group chairman, John Clark, both agreed that there was unlikely to be a sudden surge of consumer demand, though they welcomed the timeline for reopening.
Hawthorne said: “We have looked forward to things before during this pandemic and want we don’t want is another false dawn.
“All we really wanted was a managed departure from lockdown that would allow us to plan our operations and we have that. It’s great news.
“But I have told my teams that the virus isn’t simply going to go away in April, we will need to be cautious, to apply PPE, sanitise our showrooms and social distance with the same caution as before. It’s not a time to get overly excited.”
Hawthorne told AM that the trend of the COVID-19 pandemic across the UK has been mirrored among the employees of the top AM100 retail group, with “hundreds of staff” self-isolating or affected directly by COVID during January spike in infection rates.
“As of today, that number has come down to 28, so things are looking up,” he said.
Setting out her plan to ease lockdown restrictions in Scotland yesterday (March 16), Nicola Sturgeon gave Scottish car dealers the green light to reopen to customers on an appointment-only basis on April 5, with the wider opening of non-essential retail set to deliver a return to more normalised trading on April 26.
Sturgeon said that the country's stay-at-home order in Scotland will be removed on April 2, but the advice will continue to be to ‘stay local’ for an initial period hoped would be for less than three weeks.
Hawthorne said that the Arnold Clark business had been performing “very well” during March, but suggested the market’s strength may not fully return until May, when free movement is once again permitted in Scotland.
He said: “The geography of the country is such that many people do travel to buy a car.”
Clark told AM that his AM100 business had also been able to deliver a strong March performance in the circumstances with trading reflecting the 90% of normal levels indicated by Auto Trader data earlier this week.
And he was “very pleased” with the news that COVID-19 restrictions would be eased in April, he said that a “Tsunami of demand is unlikely”.
“It’s not like when we emerged from lockdown in June last year and we were coming from a period of absolute lockdown,” he said.
“This time around people have been able to adapt and maintain a certain level of trading.
“There is a large proportion of car buyers looking at mid-range products – and used cars in-particular – who want to come in and test drive the car and we know that they are looking but not seeing through their purchases right now from our online activity.
“There are issues if we were to see that Tsunami of demand, however. Like many other businesses, we don’t have the headcount that we had this time last year in order to manage enquiries. What’s more, supplies of certain vehicles remain difficult due to component shortages and factory shutdowns.”
The SMTA’s Sandy Burgess was celebrating the news that news from the Scottish Government that car showrooms in Scotland would be able to welcome customers from April 5.
He said: “I was hopeful that we might return to trading on April 12, in line with England, but to come back a week earlier – albeit on an appointment-only basis – is more than I could have wished for.
“There’s always a caveat with the Scottish Government, but that’s something we can work with.
“As you’d expect we are now making enquiries to get the finer detail of what the timeline will mean for dealers. We really want to see the guidelines in writing.”