The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Car dealers trying different ideas during COVID-19


April 15, 2020

Who doesn’t like making their way around the car lot, checking out all the car models and their shiny new paint? Who doesn’t like the smell of the showroom, and of course that new-car scent when you climb inside one?

In recent weeks, though, all of the above is just part of what the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away. No more lots and showrooms for a while, at least until the end of the month, as people stay socially distant to contain the coronavirus.

But car dealerships are working it out, just like other businesses. No showroom? No lot? No problem in the 21st century.

Dealerships have offered online shopping for a while. Most of us have done it, at least from the shopping end, added on our new-car essentials with the click of a mouse, selected just the right color, tried to design the sweetest ride possible on our computers.

Now in these strange COVID-19 days, dealerships are encouraging customers more than ever to find their perfect vehicle electronically, and even close their deals from a safe distance.

“It was available before if you wanted to do it that way,” Bryce Bender of the Bender Family of Dealerships said, “but by law they were supposed to come into the dealership and sign the paperwork.”

Now the process can be completed without stepping foot on the lot.

“We just type up the paperwork and we drive the car to their house and hand them the paperwork,” Bender said. “We’re not allowed to go in their house; the customer can go back in the house and sign the paperwork. You can do the same with used cars.”

It’s not ideal from the dealer’s standpoint. But it’s an option.

“(W)e can’t allow anybody on our showroom floors, and we’re not allowed to greet them on the lots, so we’ve got to figure out a way to communicate,” said Gary Hamilton of Hamilton Auto Group. “We’ve got telephone numbers posted on our website, and some of those who have real interest, who are not tire kicking, they’ll reach out to us.”

Hamilton said if customers do their shopping online and decide to move forward and contact one of his dealerships, a salesperson can meet them in front of their home or business. It’s a different way of getting people in cars, due to the coronavirus.

“Yeah, I guess that’s what humans do best is adapt,” Hamilton said. “So we’re making it work. It’s not as lucrative, but it’s better than nothing at all. The customers seem to understand and they do their best to help us. They understand they can’t come inside the dealership and they understand we can’t come out and greet them.”

Bender said that after his customers shop online, they can request a salesperson to bring the car of their interest to their home where they can try it out.

Of course, sanitizing is a must. The dealership staff will thoroughly disinfect a car before a customer goes for a test drive.

“Then after they take a test drive we take it back to our wash bay and disinfect the whole car before we put it back on the lot,” Bender said.

It’s bizarre, like every change we’ve had to make during the pandemic. But, deals are getting done, just not as many as before.

“It’s slow,” Bender said, “but we’re selling a few cars.”

“People are afraid for their jobs and their future,” Hamilton said. “They don’t want to obligate themselves to debt right now because of the uncertainty of what’s going to happen. … We’re probably off 40 percent (in sales).”

Such is life these days. COVID-19 has punched the economy in the teeth, changed how people connect, made Zoom an integral part of communication.

And it made social distancing a thing. Car dealerships are no different in that regard.

“We’re just following the guidelines of the New Mexico Automobile Dealers Association,” Bender said. “We keep all the showroom doors locked at all times. Nobody’s allowed to enter the showroom.”

“We’re limited to how many people can be in the dealership,” Hamilton said. “We have to split up shifts because the salespeople can’t all be there at the same time. We’re really abiding by the rules because we don’t want to lose this privilege.

“Some of the rules make no sense,” Hamilton added. “You can stand in line in the grocery and stay a reasonable distance from (other people), but you can’t talk to someone on a car lot from a reasonable distance. Some of the standards don’t make sense.”

At least car-buying, even during a pandemic, still makes sense to customers.

“It’s real simple,” Bender said. “We made it real easy for the customer to buy a car, and there are good incentives and rates that the manufacturers are putting out there.”

Though the pandemic goes on, normal might be just a turn around the corner.

“Looks like we’re on the other side of the curve hopefully and we’re headed in the right direction,” Hamilton said. “We’ve just got to be patient and put up with it and get to where most of us are healthy.”


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