What you need to know about buying, service

This spring will see yet another norm nixed by the coronavirus pandemic. As warmer weather beckons people outdoors, those interested in buying a car typically drop by a dealership to browse. That’s no longer the case.

Originally told to shut down showrooms, dealerships can now sell by appointment only. It’s a new way of business, and dealers across the state are moving forward cautiously.

Hommy Poursaied, general manager of Martin Honda, Mazda, Kia in Newark, said they have been cleaning and disinfecting more and rotating their staff. That way employees and customers who have appointments stay safe. “Everyday we’re coming up with something else to do to make sure that people have a peace of mind when they come here,” he said.

At Nucar Connection in Wilmington, people working must take their temperature before coming in, and much of the building is cordoned off to keep customers and staff at a distance, said Tracy Gell, director of marketing and e-commerce.

She said business is down to a fraction of what it normally is, and they had to temporarily lay off some employees. “It’s been very challenging but we’re doing the best we can to keep as many people employed as possible and as safe as possible,” she said.

Santosh Viswanathan is part-owner of Willis Ford Smyrna and president of Lakeshore Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM in Seaford. While he agreed that there’s been a drop in sales, he said a lot of special deals are incentivizing people to buy right now.

“Some of the offers and some of the incentives offered by the manufacturers are so strong that we’re actually delivering cars to customers at home,” he said.

Embracing technology

Beyond driveway deliveries, one common thread among dealers is a shift toward online sales. Customers can do everything from browsing different models to getting pre-approved without ever walking into a store.

At Willis Ford Smyrna, Viswanathan said the sales staff conducted a transaction almost entirely by text messages. They used Notes on the iPhone to work out numbers, the customer filled out an online application, and they delivered the car to him at a Starbucks parking lot.

“All of our employees are cross-trained, and all of our employees have been trained to embrace technology,” Viswanathan said. “So these times are not too challenging for us because we’ve always done it this way in some shape or form.”

At Martin Honda Mazda Kia in Newark, they had been developing a way to sell cars online for the past year, and they accelerated that when the state of emergency happened.

I.G. Burton is ramping up social media engagement with a Facebook campaign. Through the end of April, they are giving out one $25 gift card a day to someone who likes their page, in addition to making much of the buying process possible online.

Notable deals

In solidarity with restaurants, I.G. Burton in Milford, Smyrna, Seaford, Lewes and Berlin, Maryland, is offering a deal on pre-owned vehicles. If a customer brings in their take-out receipts, the sales staff will add up the receipts for a discount up to $1,000.

“We’re trying to support local businesses, too,” said M.J. Lofland, chief operating officer. “We care about our people and we care about our community.”

This is on top of other deals offered by the car manufacturers, including 0% interest and terms up to 84 months, rebates, discounts and payment deferrals. “I don’t know if [the deals] ever would get any better,” said Poursaied.

Many manufacturers offer deals for healthcare workers, first responders and military personnel.

Gell said Nucar Connection employees will help you navigate these offers and decide if now is the best time to buy.

“They try to lay it out in a way that makes it really easy and helps educate you, so you can make a great decision for you and your family,” she said.

Maintenance matters

Most dealerships do more than sell cars, though. As far as parts, repairs and maintenance, most recommended making an appointment, but service departments are otherwise running as normal.

Many essential workers, like first responders, rely on these services, Viswanathan said. Willis Ford Smyrna serviced two different ambulances recently. “Our goal is to get those vehicles in and out as fast as we can because that’s important to their functioning,” he said.

I.G. Burton is offering one free oil change per day for a healthcare worker and free pick-up and delivery for their cars.

The representatives of each dealership said employees are making sure the car is disinfected before returning it to the customer. They are wearing gloves and masks, disinfecting the car and using steering wheel covers.