May 25, 2020
New car dealers are having a rough time of it thanks to the coronavirus. The recent revelation of a 48.5 per cent fall in new car sales nationally in April confirmed that dealerships were under enormous pressure from the pandemic lockdown, and dealing with the setback was one the most significant challenges the sector has faced.
For James Robertson, Dealer Principal of Bill Robertson Toyota in Gladstone and chairman of MTA Queensland’s AADA committee, the challenge has been confronted with a focus on communication, the help of dedicated staff and, as it has been for all dealers, a measure of experience from having dealt with downturns and testing times in the past.
“We’ve experienced the significant downturn in sales that everyone in Queensland has,” said Mr Robertson. “The Gladstone market was down just over 40 per cent in April compared to April last year and workshop demand was down a similar amount. I’ve certainly had times where I’ve had to take a lot of deep breaths and focus on what I can do.
“My staff have been great,” he added. “As the country shut down, I tried to keep my staff informed as best I could. I kept having our weekly meetings in each department, and I held toolbox meetings when I needed to communicate a change quickly. I also said it was my intention to continue running the business as close to normal as I could.
“Before we were sure we’d qualify for JobKeeper support everyone took some annual leave to reduce our operating expenses. We have some staff working from home, but retail really requires most people to be here, so we implemented social distancing and a lot of sanitising. We have 46 staff, so we had to invest a few thousand dollars in wipes, dispensers and sanitisers.”
The State and Federal governments’ response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a responsible one according to Mr Robertson. In terms of the reaction to the health threat and the economic repercussions, the measures are ones to be supported.
“I think they did what they had to do for public safety and have done more than I expected to help businesses such as mine,” he said. “We’ve had really tough times before without any help, so this assistance has been useful and welcomed. The early implementation of payroll tax refunds and federal cashflow support payments absolutely gave me confidence to save jobs.
“Being able to keep trained staff ready to meet the needs of customers as they return is extraordinarily supportive,” he added. “I’m conscious that not every MTA Queensland member is having the same experience and encourage those that need more support to keep seeking the support they need. Be assured AADA and MTA Queensland are continuing to lobby on behalf of all dealers.”
As for the future, and with the economy now slowly reopening, Mr Robertson said that a focus on adjusting to market changes, ensuring governments are always aware of the value dealers bring to the economy, and continuing to provide the excellent service that customers expect would help keep dealers in good stead. There was also a chance, he said, that the changing attitudes to the health risks posed by sharing public transport during the pandemic may lead to a greater interest in the personal benefits of car ownership.
“Our industry has been operating on high volume and low margins for more than a generation,” he said. “I think it’s important for all motor dealers to remember that we are used to being vigilant in monitoring how our businesses are performing and adapting to the current market. “We will also survive because we provide an extremely high level of service to our customers and are listening to what they want every day. I don’t think any other businesses have the local infrastructure to meet their customers’ needs the way that motor dealers do.
“Moving forward, we need to continue to ensure governments appreciate what we do and continue to lobby for policies that allow us to be profitable in our core business of selling cars,” he added. “Customers will not get value for money if we can’t afford to employ trained staff in sales, service, parts and finance. If we don’t exist, customers will have to call an overseas call centre when they have a problem with their $40,000 purchase. That’s why I’m a member of the MTA Queensland and AADA.
“I think long term we’ll be more affected by credit restrictions following the Banking Royal Commission and vehicle electrification. Government stimulus such as the instant tax write-off for vehicles will definitely help dealers sell more vehicles. “I’m also starting to wonder if people are now going to prefer their own vehicles over public transport, planes and shared vehicles. The future of private vehicles could be very different from what was being touted only three months ago.”