Many dealerships across Canada are scrambling to catch up with a backlog of deferred maintenance and service as wary customers gain confidence that it’s once again safe to bring in their vehicles.
Although circumstances vary by store, some report seeing bookings as much as three weeks out for seasonal tire rotations, oil changes and other common service work.
“This has never happened before,” said Aziz Ahamed, owner of the Destination Auto Group, which operates five dealerships in the Vancouver area. “People haven’t used their cars for some time. They’ve been postponing service.”
Adding to the challenge are social-distancing regulations that limit the number of technicians and service advisers who can be on duty. Dealers said they have installed shields and other personal protective equipment (PPE) and, in some cases, are extending working hours to meet the demand.
“If you flood the shop [with technicians] and the government comes in, they’ll shut you down,” said Perry Itzcovitch, co-owner of the Hyatt Auto Group in Calgary. His Mercedes-Benz Downtown dealership has brought back about 70 per cent of its technicians and asked some to volunteer to stay later to get work done. The workload has roughly doubled from the height of the pandemic.
“We’re trying to make it seamless for the customer,” he said.
Dealers say the clients who are bringing their cars in for service are pleased with the measures being taken. Those include offering contactless key drop, sanitizing vehicles, using PPE and employing social distancing in the service departments. At most dealerships employees are also required to fill out a daily fitness-towork form.
As a result, “The level of fear has gone down significantly,” Itzcovitch said.
“People feel comfortable,” said Ahamed, but “they’re not standing around and drinking coffee. They’re in and they’re out.”
In Winnipeg, customers are not “beating down the doors” to get service done at dealerships, said Steve Chipman, CEO of Birchwood Automotive Group. His shops are running at about 65 per cent to 70 per cent of capacity. Birchwood operates 22 rooftops and 17 repair shops in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
“I think there are still some people who are concerned about bringing their cars in,” Chipman said. Although vehicles are thoroughly sanitized and PPE is in place, he said, “There are still a lot of people who are reticent.”
The only bright spot for service work in April and May was the seasonal tire changeover, Chipman said. Body shop work, meanwhile, dropped by 50 per cent because, with less driving, fewer collisions occurred.
Dealerships also report that a feared shortage of parts did not materialize. Both automakers and third-party parts suppliers kept the flow going.
One casualty of the pandemic is the courtesy shuttle service. Government regulations limit the number of passengers to one, and “that just doesn’t work in an eight-passenger shuttle,” said John Brushett, dealer principal at Moncton Honda in New Brunswick.
Birchwood idled its fleet of 12 shuttle vans during the pandemic because the drivers are of retirement age and the most at risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.
“I don’t know if the shuttle business will ever be what it was,” Chipman said.
Moncton Honda laid off about half its total staff at the peak of the pandemic. Since early May, Brushett said, he has had close to full staffing. Except for a handful of employees who were nervous about returning to work, “When we called, everyone was anxious to come back.”
During the peak of the pandemic, Moncton Honda kept its service department as functional as possible, Brushett said. While the sales department was closed by government order, the dealership implemented social distancing and added PPE so technicians could keep working.
“I said to my managers, ‘We’re going to refuse to participate in the COVID panic. We did make every effort to ensure our staff and customers were safe. We were very, very fortunate with the cooperation we got.”
While sales of new and used vehicles dropped about 40 per cent to a total of 300 over the past two months, he said, the “back end was just very vibrant.”
“From a fixed operations standpoint, it’s been our saviour.”