The nation’s motor trade returns to work…with Covid-19 caution
With the news that car dealerships can return to work from 1st June, Iain Robertson was keen to discover what it felt like on the frontline and offered his services to a non-franchise but specialist garage on the outskirts of the City of Lincoln.
Had I been furloughed, to relieve the (bloody) boredom of self-imposed house arrest, I might have taken to delivering supermarket groceries, or assisting a local farmer, rather than continuing to write stories over the past ten weeks. Yet, I am blessed that my subject material has seldom been too far from my grasp. Of course, with the garage trade re-opening its doors from Monday 1st June, I anticipated correctly that some of them would have gargantuan tasks to contend with.
Keith Arnold’s business has been highly visible over the years not merely servicing the needs of the local farming community, which it does, but also the important second-hand Land and Range Rover market, in a largely agricultural county that is also serviced by up to ten main brand franchise outlets. Prior to the pandemic, his business was consistently busy. Although his stockholding has seldom exceeded 25 vehicles, regular turnover ensures a continually refreshed and attractive stock, visible from the main A57.
Of course, when the lockdown was announced, spring was not fully sprung. As a result, the amount of leaf debris that had built around the open-air site was extensive. However, more importantly, nearby trees have been casting sap across the vehicle stock and nesting birds have also left their marks, all of which is highly damaging to pristine paint finishes. While late-April and May have been fairly dry, airborne dust from fields, allied to morning dew and the occasional shower has meant that even a well-polished surface would show signs of seasonal change, none of which is conducive to putting on a good show. Keith was as grateful for my car washing talents, as I was amazed by the resilience of Land Rover bodywork!
However, a number of Land Rover models feature air suspension and every example was now hunkered onto its lowest setting. While this is not a problem in isolation, modern vehicle electronics place a high demand on available battery charge. After almost 2.5-months, several vehicles needed a ‘jump-start’ to kick life into them…except that a conventional battery-to-battery cable start is no longer feasible, as it might damage the sensitive on-board electronics. Keith contended with restoring life to the cars that needed it. Replacement batteries were ordered, where necessary, from the local parts supplier. The rest were being trickle-charged.
Fortunately, Keith’s business is not reliant on passing trade. As a nationally known 4×4 centre, which is promoted through his company’s website, potential customers come from far and wide. Although he has been able to satisfy some consumer requirements during the period of lockdown, the loss of certain business has been very costly, even though he runs a very tight ship, with just himself and a colleague normally running the show. It is suggested that over £68bn worth of ‘lost motor trade’ has occurred around the UK over this period. How much of it can be recovered is an unknown quantity.
Yet, Keith’s telephone was ringing incessantly, many existing and potential customers keen to know when his doors would re-open. In preparation for something of a surge commencing from the 1st June, the sales office needed to be cleaned from top to bottom, with demarcation lines, surface and hand cleanser much in evidence, to comply with the retail rules surrounding the pandemic. While his business is unlikely to experience supermarket-type queues, the process remains the same.
Naturally, kick-starting the business is as essential as restarting the stock. As each car was cleaned, new photographs and some videos were deemed essential for the business’s online presence. Keith has always been justifiably proud of the quality and presentation of his stock. His stock-in-trade reputation for buying, selling to and servicing the needs of his customers may have been long-established but no business has been struck with a two-and-a-half-months’ enforced break since WW2. No business can simply open its doors and hope to continue as before, a factor of which Keith is only too aware, as he knows that it needs more than reputation to maintain business buoyancy.
While Keith is unwilling understandably to state the financial cost of the pandemic to his business, he is digging deeply into his company’s resources to return to full operation. We are always informed that the lifeblood of our nation lies in its small businesses and that they rely on local trade to survive. Although I am sure that the pickup rate will be fairly linear, the ‘new normal’ of carrying out dealings with customers, without handshakes, or personal contact, will be sure to have some impact on his business, just as it will on many others in a similar boat.
While it is consummately easy for a specialist writer to make ends meet, a garage business has numerous additional pressures impacting on its efficacy. While the sliver of experience of Keith Arnold Cars, which is sure to survive in the immediate pandemic aftermath, the question of a ‘second wave’ of Covid-19 hangs in the ether, the impact of which will be much more severe across the entire motor industry.