Mark Barrett sanitizes the inside of a car at Emerson Chevrolet Buick in Auburn on Wednesday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Area car dealerships have adjusted to the new normal amid the coronavirus pandemic, but owners acknowledge that the two months they were closed March and April forced them to reinvent themselves.

“We got better doing things online,” said Emerson Chevrolet Buick General Manager Vinnie Goulette, explaining that for that two-month period it was all about imaginative workarounds. Dealerships were allowed to reopen their showrooms on May 1.

“When we were always trying to get people to walk in or call, the focus was to get to them at your site so you could get on the phone with them and walk them through and show them pictures and do things that way,” he said.

“The other thing people might not think of is the delivery of the vehicle and doing paperwork and stuff like that. We were printing out paperwork and telling people where to sign, leaving big check marks on stuff. They were signing paperwork in their new car. And we would do deliveries to explain their new car to them. We were kind of doing FaceTime with them — we would get in a new car similar to theirs and FaceTime while they were in their (car), walk them through how to use the car.”

The dealerships had to make adjustments because just like service garages, which were deemed an essential business by the state because of ongoing demand, there was still a market to sell cars in the early stages of the pandemic.

“It was much harder (to sell cars online), but some people still needed to buy a car,” said Lee Auto Malls CEO John Isaacson. “The folks who needed to buy a car, we were here to help them. In general, people want to see the car. They may or may not want to test drive it, but they at least want to see it. It’s hard to do remotely. It makes it more difficult, but certainly not impossible, especially for folks who needed to buy a car in late March and April.”

For Evergreen Subaru in Auburn the transition to selling remotely started before this spring.

“A lot of questions get answered via email and phone, a lot of the sale process can be conducted that way, preparing documents, getting finance information, all of that can happen through conversations,” Evergreen Subaru Managing Owner Doug Weisz said. “But literally the rubber meets the road in the car, right? That piece is the biggest disruptive aspect of the whole thing.”

Dealers say they have taken precautions to reopen the showrooms by disinfecting everything from door handles, surfaces and car keys to marking the floors to space things out six feet apart.

Evergreen Subaru won’t put a salesperson in the car during a test drive.

“The hardest thing for us is the test drive,” Weisz said. “We are currently conducting test drives by spraying the car with disinfectant and sending the customer by themselves. We do not accompany somebody in a car for a test drive. That was the biggest change we made the entire time.”

With the showrooms opened back up, business is moving in the right direction, dealers say.

“Business in May is dramatically better then business was in April and I would underline, dramatically better. It’s still significantly below where it was last May, but still dramatically better than April,” Isaacson said. “Opening showrooms up — even to a limited amount of people and doing it in a very, very safe way — has really helped business a lot.”

While business has picked up, dealerships still face some challenges that are out of their hands at the moment, including a shortage of some vehicles.

“We have over 50 trucks in the pipeline right now; the problem is I don’t know where they are as far as production (wise),” Goulette said. “We just have no idea (where vehicles are) when the (plants shut down) or (manufacturers) letting me know where my trucks are. I only have seven trucks on the lot right now, which is really difficult to sell off an empty shelf. … I normally have 50 (vehicles) to choose from. One of those trucks will have the equipment, the color and the appeal to the person who wants to purchase it.”

Meanwhile, Emerson Chevrolet Buick currently has plenty of SUVs on the lot; Goulette estimates around 90 to 100.

Weisz said the plants in Indiana and Japan where he gets his vehicles from are still shut down.

“While inventory was building in April, all the things in the pipeline had been built and were coming when sales effectively shut down. Now we see new car sales demand return and our pipeline is virtually void,” Weisz said.

“We got a fairly healthy supply of inventory for traditional times, but what I am looking at on my lot is probably what I have to sell for the next 90 days without anything coming behind to replace it. I am very curious about how the next couple of months are going to look. I think in July and August, inventory levels are going to get very, very thin and that’s when new problems will emerge.”

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