How do you prepare for the new reg when your showroom is under lockdown?

March 2021 is set to be very different from normal for the motor trade. But could the easing of lockdown restrictions, coupled with vaccines being more widely rolled out, unleash pent-up demand?

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Closed showrooms, tumbleweed blowing across forecourts and not a customer in sight. It’s not the normal state of affairs for February, when there’s usually a big buzz in car showrooms across the UK as we gear up for the first new registration plate of the year.

Normally, by now, dealers are logging orders, arranging delivery dates and even starting to register vehicles with the DVLA ready for the 1st March handover day, when lucky new car buyers get to collect their latest pride and joy. But the past year has been like no other – and the ever resourceful car industry has adapted to the best of its abilities, surviving two periods of lockdown and still managing to sustain a viable level of sales despite never seeing customers in the flesh.

The key for dealers is to take any opportunity they can to make contact with customers.

The UK’s November lockdown alone cost the car industry around £1.3bn in lost revenue according to data from the SMMT, and as showrooms remain closed for the entire first quarter of 2021, the economic impact of Lockdown V3 looks like it could be even more damaging – but the clever dealers are mitigating this.

“It’s not a normal trading environment but it could be a lot, lot worse,” says Peter Wilcox, Brand Director for Glyn Hopkin in Milton Keynes, which holds Fiat, Nissan and MG franchises. “It’s a case of adapt and conquer. Showroom footfall is still a big part of our business, especially for converting customers to a new brand, but in a digital world there are other ways to contact them and retain them.

“Our sales teams have been busy working from home, speaking to customers about our latest deals, asking them if their current deal is right for them and exploring options, and we’ve seen some decent interest. It’s not going to be a normal March, but it’s not going to be a static one either.”

Aftersales is also a strong way to not only reach customers, but also boost revenues, and although showrooms have been closed, most dealers have been able to operate a servicing and repair business, which has allowed them to make contact with customers.

Mike Darby, Aftersales Manager for Arnold Clark Group said: “It’s been very much business as usual for service and repair operations, and we’ve been able to introduce customers to our sales staff that way – it certainly shows the value of Aftersales teams to wider network.”

The key for dealers, then, is to take any opportunity they can to make contact with customers, and to convince them that buying a new car in March is still a great idea – an area where aftersales and accessories can once again sweeten the deal. A set of mats, a paint protection package or a service voucher could well be enough to convince the customer to buy now rather than delay until the end of the current lockdown.

In reality, though, March 2021 is set to be very different from normal for the motor trade. A survey by consumer motoring website Parkers recently revealed that 64 per cent of customers won’t consider buying a car until they’ve been able to see, sit in or test drive it, while only 47 per cent said they believed that dealerships should reopen immediately.

“The fact that so many people need a test drive before making the decision to purchase means that the longer dealers stay closed, the more damage is being done to the industry through lost sales,” said Keith Adams, Parkers Editor.

The big difference to the first lockdown, though, is that consumer confidence is starting to return, and while the third lockdown has dented it initially, there are signs that things could pick-up once restrictions start to be eased.

“High levels of savings combined with confidence in household disposable income point to favourable conditions for supporting growth in consumer activity when the recovery comes,” said Deloitte in its latest economic report for the UK.  “The easing of lockdown restrictions, coupled with vaccines being more widely rolled out and strong personal finances, should unleash pent-up demand for non-food categories.”

For the car industry that can’t come soon enough – and while a record March looks to be well and truly off the table, a bumper April or May could well signal the first green shoots of recovery.

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