'It took a pandemic for dealers to get online car sales right'

Steve Fowler thinks dealerships have adapted well to the coronavirus pandemic

I'll admit that I haven’t been especially positive about car dealers in this column over the years. They’ve been stuck in the dark ages for far too long, selling cars as they’ve been sold for decades and not embracing the digital world or how we want to shop.  

But credit where credit is due, I’ve seen a sea change in how dealers have finally embraced the digital age and are selling cars online. Sadly, it’s taken a pandemic and three lockdowns to get them there, but nonetheless…

  • Coronavirus: what's it doing to the car industry?

Looking at the latest new car registration figures gives a clear indication of the good work that’s been done to keep businesses alive. While the focus has been on a 40 per cent drop in registrations year-on-year in January, it means dealers have still sold 60 per cent of the number of cars they sold last year – with their showrooms shut. 

Which brings us on to the subject of showrooms still being closed and showing no signs of being allowed to open. Nobody could possibly expect sales levels to equal last year’s, even if showrooms were open at the moment – but the numbers would all be considerably higher if they were, as would the crucial revenue the car industry needs to keep people in jobs. Oh, and let’s not forget the extra cash that the taxman would get, too.

With dealerships shut and factories open, we could be heading to a build-up of stock with nowhere to go. And what happens then? The factories slow down or stop production and more people are out of work.

Nobody can ignore the dangers the coronavirus poses and the difficulty in opening public spaces. But I took my son’s car in to Marshall Volkswagen in St Albans recently, where cars and accessories are covered so people won’t come in and look around. But there is so much space in there and such a desire amongst the staff to stay safe, I would feel safer in a car dealership than I would do in my local garden centre, which is still able to stay open. Let’s hope dealers get the green light to open safely soon.

Find out how to buy a car during lockdown…

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