Need a car repair during the COVID-19 pandemic? That’s doable. Need a new car? That’s going to be harder to come by.
Gov. Jay Inlsee’s statewide stay-at-home order, currently scheduled to remain in place through May 4, includes a broad carve-out for car repairs and maintenance, giving the green light to auto shops to keep operating as essential businesses. However, the order does not apply the same exception to car sales, and that difference has resulted in an unusual halfway-open scenario at big car dealerships, many of which also function as maintenance centers for a specific car brand.
“In effect, we’re out of the sales business for the moment,” said John Creedon, president of the Vancouver Ford and Vancouver Hyundai dealerships.
Creedon said he saw a range of responses from car dealers after Inslee’s order arrived on March 23. Some stayed open with new cleaning and social distancing measures in place such as remote delivery. A few assumed the order required them to shut down sales altogether.
“Some dealers took it that way and some did not,” Creedon said.
The most common strategy was somewhere in the middle: close down the physical showrooms and move sales online. Several Vancouver dealerships advertised that approach on their websites in the days after the order went into effect.
Selling cars online is not a hard switch to make, Creedon said. About 80 percent of his customers tend to engage with the dealership digitally before they set foot in the physical building.
“It can easily be done right now,” said Keith Archer, sales manager at Alan Webb Chevrolet in Vancouver. “That’s kind of how the business operates already.”
Several dealerships objected to the idea of having to stop sales while still performing maintenance, essentially closing off half of their physical buildings. Creedon pointed to grocery stores as a comparison — department stores like Fred Meyer and Walmart have been allowed to remain entirely open, rather than just opening their grocery sections.
There’s also a fairness issue among car dealerships, Creedon said. Oregon’s stay-at-home order is broadly similar to Washington’s, but it includes car sales as an essential service. Most big Portland dealerships are still open, putting the Clark County dealers at a disadvantage.
“It seems inequitable if we’re both facing the same risks,” Creedon said. “A balance would be nice.”
The ambiguity ended last week when Inslee’s office released a memo with updated guidance for car sales, declaring that all sales must stop unless the buyer needs the car for transportation to an essential job.
The memo didn’t directly mention online sales, but they appear to be ruled out too. Many parts of the buying procedure can be done online, but ultimately there are some documents that can’t legally be done electronically — most notably, the title signature, Creedon said.
Sooner or later, the customer has to physically come into the dealership to finish the sale, and unless they’re an essential worker in an emergency situation, that’s not allowed anymore.
“We can’t sell cars. That’s the end result,” Archer said.
The remaining strategy for dealers now, Creedon said, is to start the process, take deposits, and then guarantee customers that they can pick up their cars as soon as the pandemic crisis is over.
“We have dozens of sales that are in a holding pattern, awaiting delivery,” he said.
In the meantime, dealerships have been able to keep busy on the maintenance side of the business. People are hesitant to start buying new cars due to the uncertainty about the virus, Creedon said, and those who already own cars are determined to keep them in good shape.
“No one wants to have a dead car in this environment,” he said.
Once the current crisis does let up, Creedon said, he expects to see the industry rebound quickly due to pent-up demand from buyers. That’s what happened after the 2008 financial crash, he said — the following five years saw record vehicle sales.