NH auto dealers retool the buying experience during pandemic

Many beef up their online presence to offer full ‘virtual’ transactions
Duane Coute

‘We have already done a lot online, so transition has not been that bad,’ says Duane Coute, general manager of Littleton Chevrolet, about the dealership’s switch to digital transactions.

What started out as a promising year, with Edmunds 2020 Automotive Industry Trends Report forecasting a sixth straight year of U.S. auto sales topping $17 billion, quickly soured with the coronavirus.

Millions have lost their jobs, and stay-at-home orders as well as social distancing guidelines have brought the traditional face-to-face transaction most car buyers expect to a screeching halt.

Edmunds’ analysts said April would be the worst month in 30 years for auto sales, with a nearly 53% projected decrease compared to April 2019. And annual sales could fall 26%, to 12.5 million vehicles, although some forecasts of annualized sales show it tumbling to as low as 7.5 million, which would be the lowest sales pace in more than 40 years.

Definitive April numbers were not immediately available.

A survey conducted in April by the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association found that 70% of respondents reported a decrease in sales in late March and early April, with only 6% seeing an increase. The survey also found that 30% of dealerships indicated they could fail within two months if nothing changes.

‘Here to stay’

But New Hampshire dealerships are not throwing in the towel on the year or just waiting for everything to return to pre-coronavirus business practices.

Lisette Gole Headshotfixed

‘Online retailing is here to stay, and this crisis has shown that consumers and dealers are ready to fully digitize their purchase,’ says Lissette Gole, head of automotive retail at Google.

Many dealers have been able to build on their existing online presence to move to a full online car-buying experience in combination with curbside and home test driving and delivery.

“We have already done a lot online, so transition has not been that bad,” said Duane Coute, general manager of Littleton Chevrolet.

In Claremont, Lambert Auto developed a full, simple, online buying experience, accessible on its home page, if that is what the customer desires.

“We come to you, and we can do a lot online,” said owner John Lambert, who was able to keep his staff with a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

Lambert Auto, which has seen an overall decline in business of about 30% in April compared to April 2019, has introduced what it calls a “virtual acquisition,” which does not require a trip to the dealership to purchase a vehicle.

The process includes video with a 360-degree walk-around and interior look at any vehicle the customer is interested in. From there, it is delivered to the home for a test drive. Once an agreement is reached, financing and all paperwork are also brought to the customer.

“Reality has changed, so we need to seek out new ways to allow shoppers to experience products from the safety of their homes,” said Lissette Gole, head of automotive retail at Google, during a recent webinar. “Online retailing is here to stay, and this crisis has shown that consumers and dealers are ready to fully digitize their purchase.”

Though the number of potential buyers has decreased, Gole said those still in the market have “true purchase intent”, and shifting to digital sales is seen as “necessary.”

Google search trends indicate that there are still buyers out there, and in fact, there is interest among buyers looking to capitalize on incentives such as 0% financing for 84 months and no payments for 120 days.

Gole cited one statistic showing a 900% month-over-month increase in the number of searches for “is it a good time to buy a car?”

“Despite significant loss in sales for March and April, people are still showing signals they are shopping for vehicles,” Gole said. “With so many similar deals it is getting more important to get your message in front of shoppers.”

‘We have to adapt’

Back in New Hampshire, Coute of Littleton Chevrolet – who at one point had to furlough all but 16 of his 50 employees but was able to bring them all back with a Paycheck Protection Program loan – said he is are still getting a lot of leads from interested buyers. He said the dealership puts an emphasis on doing what the customer feels comfortable with when it comes to how a sale is handled, adding that it is critical now more than ever to tailor the online shopping experience to the customer’s demands.

“We have to adapt to earn their respect,” he said.

At Hilltop Chevrolet in Somersworth, Nancy Notis, who does marketing for the dealership, said it has instituted a number of health-related protocols to give both employees and customers the feeling of being safe and are promoting online transactions.

“For sales and service we can go to the customer,” Notis said. “If someone is interested in a car, we can deliver it. Whatever we can do – just working on the new normal.”

How long the slowdown in vehicle sales will last and how long before the numbers mirror the January forecast is a big unknown. Peter McNamara, president of the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association, said when the Great Recession hit in 2008, it was another four years before the number of car titles issued stopped dropping and three more before they returned to pre recession numbers.

“Put in raw, estimated numbers for our near future, there could be 20,000 to 50,000 less cars that are sold and thus titled at the DMV in the next few years,” McNamara said. “If titling shows a similar decline in this downturn as the Great Recession, we won’t see sales bounce back for two to three years.”

Lambert said the virus has made it tougher to be successful in the business.

“Going forward, it is going to be more difficult,” he said.

This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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