Still, the pandemic has accelerated the shift toward online shopping, and TADA is looking to ensure that regulations governing Ontario retailers reflect the trends in consumer buying habits, Eatson said.
TADA, which represents 1,100 franchised dealerships in Ontario, has been lobbying the province to modernize the Motor Vehicle Dealers Act, which currently requires that all transactions be finalized at the place of purchase. The act is under review and TADA will be among the stakeholders pushing for change, Eatson said.
“With [COVID-19] and online digital selling, the act needs to be reviewed, and we’re trying to make some inroads there. We need to be able to consummate a deal off-site digitally with those signatures to make it easier for the consumer. There were temporary changes throughout COVID, but we still needed to do the transaction on-site.”
Eatson, whose term as TADA chief is one year, replaced Cliff Lafreniere, president of Pinwood Park Motors in Kirkland Lake, Ont., 600 kilometres north of Toronto. The TADA president is appointed from the organization’s executive team, which is restricted to dealer members. After his term, Eatson will become president of the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto.
Eatson, 57, followed his parents into the family business in 1987 after graduating from university. “Most of my life has been working at the dealership, whether it was at night or weekends, washing cars or working in the parts, working service, all those sorts of things.”
Eatson’s two sons, Eric and Graeme, have also joined the business. “You always think you are going to be something else,” Michael Eatson said, “But at the end of the day when you are hanging around cars from the time you are five years old, you grow fond of engines and oil and grease and sales and people, and it all just kind of falls together.”
Eatson spoke with Automotive News Canada on a range of issues facing the industry:
ON BUILDING TRUST WITH CONSUMERS
For sales and service, it’s all about transparency and communication. You need to understand the wants and needs of your customer. To be transparent is to give them everything they need to make an educated decision on what it is they are looking for. I train my people [that] this isn’t a one-shot deal. If you build that relationship and you are transparent, you build trust. ... I would have to say most dealers are down the road of being transparent, or they are not in business very long.
ON OTTAWA’S GOAL TO END THE SALE BY 2035 OF NEW INTERNAL-COMBUSTION VEHICLES
There’s just so many things that need to happen, so I think there’s a fear out there with the date the federal government is pushing [for all cars to be electric by 2035]. Is it going to be good for the environment? Let’s hope so. Do I think it’s the future? Absolutely. If people experience electric and get the range they would like to see, it’s going to be exciting. ... I think the price point is going to be critical.
ON TADA’S PUSH FOR THE RETURN OF PROVINCIAL REBATES FOR ELECTRIC VEHICLES
It’s certainly something we’re always communicating with [the Ontario government] that we think will help the industry.
ON THE DEBATE OVER WHETHER TO REQUIRE THAT DEALERSHIP EMPLOYEES BE VACCINATED
That’s a contentious topic. That’s such a personal thing. I have not mandated that at our dealership [in Peterborough], but we have the self-test kits if we need to do that. ... I believe we need to trust the medical professionals to guide us down the right path, and we’ve seen vaccines are helping. But I also get the other side.
ON THE SUPPORT DEALERS NEED FROM AUTOMAKERS
Speaking only from my brand, it needs to be good communication between the brand, the dealers and the dealer councils, who play an active role in those sorts of discussions.
ON THE INVENTORY SHORTAGE
It’s absolutely a huge concern. Manufacturers are moving product. As quick as it comes in, it goes out. Everyone is fighting for that [microchip] supply. Volkswagen has been very good to the dealers, working through this with really good communication, so we didn’t get blindsided with no inventory and helped us accordingly. ... I can’t sit here and blame the manufacturer for no microchips. It’s just a function of what happened.
ON THE AGENCY-SELLING MODEL
My brand [is] very committed to a dealer network. I think it’s silly to think that just selling a car digitally is the end of the experience. Customers still need to get their vehicles repaired and engage with dealerships. ...Will that change in how our facility looks or how we communicate with our customers? Absolutely.
ON WHETHER HEALTH AND SAFETY PROTOCOLS AT DEALERSHIPS WILL CONTINUE ONCE COVID-19 SUBSIDES
I don’t think all those things will change overnight. I just feel like we’re all comfortable and OK with that now. I think the masks will probably disappear, sooner [rather] than later. Whether that is good or bad, I don’t know. We’re sanitizing vehicles, and I don’t think that will stop any time soon.