Carol Crager of South Portland didn’t want to drive over to Lee Auto Mall in Westbrook last week, but her options seemed limited. The passenger-side window on her 2007 Dodge Dakota refused to go back up. Bad timing, she mused.

“I had to come in or get out the trash bags,” she said. “It’s going to rain.”

Crager was sitting in the waiting room, outfitted with a scarf and gloves. Protection, she hoped, from COVID-19.

“I keep my distance,” she said. “I try to do what they tell me to do, but I still try to live.”

As she spoke, a gloved maintenance worker came by and wiped the door handle with disinfectant. In the service drop-off bay, gloved technicians wipe down high-touch areas on customers’ cars, including the seat, steering wheel, radio, door and climate controls – even the key fob.

As Maine’s stay-at-home order drags into its third week, this is how Maine’s 134 auto dealerships are coping with restrictions mandated by the coronavirus. Vehicle maintenance is considered an essential service – not surprising in a largely rural state where most people need a reliable car or truck to get around. So dealers and repair shops are taking steps in an effort to assure customers that it’s safe to drop off vehicles for maintenance.

Vehicle sales aren’t on the essential list, however, and showrooms are shuttered. But if a car dies or isn’t worth fixing, it’s still possible to buy one. As with much of the economy, sales have moved online, with arrangements being made for at-home delivery and outdoor document-signing.

Hand sanitizer is kept handy at Lee Auto Mall in Westbrook. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

And while the pandemic is disrupting the auto industry, dealers also say it may present opportunities. In the short term, customers who are willing and able to buy a vehicle over the next several months may find some of the best deals in many years. Over the long term, the fledgling delivery and online strategies keeping dealers afloat may become routine when commerce finally returns to normal.

Maine’s new- and used-auto dealers employ roughly 6,000 people and are spread across the state. They’ve seen hard times before, most recently during and after the 2008 Great Recession. But the impact of the pandemic may be harsher, according to Tom Brown, executive director of the Maine Auto Dealers Association, because so many consumers lost their jobs overnight and may not get back to work so quickly.

“Depending on the length of this, it may more financially disruptive to a lot more people,” he said. “You worry about what’s going to happen when the emergency ends. People are going to have to catch up on their finances. We’ll see how fast people can recover.”

SANITIZED SERVICE

Dealers are trying to use repair and maintenance service as a way of maintaining a relationship with customers.

Yankee Ford is advertising $30 off its posted labor rate of $110 an hour and will throw in a free inspection. Spring is typically very busy, with 40 to 60 customers a day coming in for oil changes, winter tire swaps and the like. Last week, traffic was down to 10 customers a day, according to Bob Esposito, the dealer’s principal, but it has ticked up recently with the promotion.

Roughly half of the dealership’s revenue is tied to service. Esposito said he wants to keep his 29-person service department working and has guaranteed his technicians minimum hours to keep them.

A blue line on the floor at Lee Auto Mall is meant to separate customers and employees by a safe distance. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For customers who are nervous about coming to the service department, Yankee Ford will pick up their cars at home, do the work, drive them back and disinfect them on delivery, all at no extra charge. The response has been good, and Esposito said it has made him think about continuing valet-style service pickup and delivery, within a certain radius, after the pandemic.

“You look at this and think that maybe there’s an opportunity, to do things outside of your realm,” he said.

For customers who do venture out for service, they’ll encounter the distancing and sanitation measures that are now familiar in retail environments.

At Lee Auto Mall, a customer walking in will instantly see blue tape on the floor, and may be warned by a service writer to stay back 6 feet, if they cross the threshold. Pens for signing papers are in containers labeled “dirty” and “clean.” In the waiting room, chairs are rearranged to maintain distance. Sorry, there are no snacks.

Tom Chambers of Portland was sitting in one of the chairs last week, waiting for his 2018 Jeep Renegade. It was due for an oil change and the inspection was coming up, so Chambers figured he’d get that done, too. He said he wasn’t hesitant to come in.

“I just keep my distance,” he said. “And I wash my hands.”

NO-HANDSHAKE DEALS

Sales are more complicated. Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls, has been communicating the message that if you don’t need a car, stay home. But if you do, they can still sell you one online or over the phone – and maybe signing documents on a picnic table outside a dealer’s showroom, which has been happening.

Lee has 19 dealerships and 485 employees. Sales typically average 35 a day. Now roughly one-third of the sales staff are on furlough.

North American manufacturers have stopped production for now, but Lee has plenty of cars on his lots, as do other dealers. And with Maine under a stay-at-home order until at least April 30, that bloated inventory is expected to translate into lost profits at a normally busy time of the year.

“It’s not whether you’re going to lose money in April,” Esposito said. “It’s how much money.”

Yankee Ford sells an average of 100 vehicles a month, Esposito said. Sales volume this month is expected to be off by 60 to 75 percent.

And, of course, most of these sales are taking place online. Internet transactions have accounted for only a few percent of total sales nationally, but experts expect that share to become much bigger, as some customers discover they prefer it instead of visiting the showroom. Dealers, including Yankee Ford, will even bring the car to a buyer’s home for a test drive.

Passenger vehicle sales in the United States already were falling, after hitting a record in 2016. That, combined with the pandemic-related sales slump, has led some makers to offer unheard-of incentives. For the first time, manufacturers including Ford are offering seven-year, zero-interest-rate financing. Others will defer a few months of payments, although interest continues to accrue.

Whether those measures will be enough to revive sales remains to be seen, but Esposito isn’t optimistic. Even if people get back to work, he said, many will be worried about job security and whether the virus will reemerge. He anticipates a slow, uneven recovery.

But the months ahead may be a great time to buy a car, for anyone with the need and financial confidence. As manufacturers try to move inventory ahead of new models, they will have little choice but to increase incentives and discounts.

“If you’re in the market for something new,” Esposito said, “it may be the best time we’ve had in five or six years for consumers.”


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