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How to buy a car: car dealers reopen

We headed to a new-car showroom, charting the first day of car dealers reopening their doors following the lockdown

Monday 1 June marked the first day that UK car dealerships were able to reopen their doors following the coronavirus lockdown. With Brits buying around two million new cars each year, and UK factories producing around 1.5 million new motors a year, the automotive industry is a bellwether for the UK economy, so the moment was a significant one.

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To mark the occasion, we headed to Trust Ford in Epsom, Surrey, speaking to staff, customers, and seeing what changes have been made to keep both staff and customers safe. 

With 64 dealerships in the UK, Trust Ford plays a key role in helping the 200,000-plus Fiestas, Kugas, Pumas and other models Ford sells in the UK each year find homes. The company has spent over £250,000 on personal protective equipment, screens, and other safety measures so its dealers can facilitate social distancing at the same time as offering the services buyers expect when they shop for a new car.

How has the showroom experience changed?

With so much investment in PPE and other safety measures, heading to a new-car dealership is always going to be a little unfamiliar, but what struck us was just how safe, calm and recognisable it seemed.

Yes, there is a hand sanitiser station at the door, and yes, there are screens on sales executives' desks, fewer models on the showroom floor to allow greater distances between people, and yellow tape on the floor guiding you around, but it felt was less of an alien experience than heading to the supermarket, for example.

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That's probably because as large, light, airy buildings, car dealers are better places to introduce the health and safety measures necessary at present, the warning tape and screens not dominating the space as much as they do in other retail outlets. 

Staff were clearly ready to speak to customers, and the buyers that we spoke to were relaxed, and happy to be able to return to some level of normality after weeks of lockdown.

For those who are still understandably cautious about venturing inside a dealership, many outlets, including Trust Ford, are now offering click and collect facilities, allowing deals to be done and part exchanges to be made without having to set foot inside the showroom. Online sales and home delivery options have also been expanded, while virtual tours of cars are offered, too. 

It was welcome to see just how 'normal' things felt. The sight of fresh new cars and staff diligently returning to work was encouraging. And, while there wasn't a queue out of the door, there was a steady stream of walk-in customers, keen to investigate the promise of a new car.

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Ford, like many manufacturers, is also offering deferred payments on new cars, while there are a number of zero-per-cent interest offers out there. So while things may not quite be 'back to normal' yet, it's clear we're on a tentative road to recovery. 

Safety for staff and customers 

Stuart Foulds, chief executive of Trust Ford, told us: “We’ve gone to considerable lengths to make dealerships safe. In terms of the showrooms, we’ve spaced out the desks and removed a number of vehicles, so if someone comes in they can look at a vehicle safely without being next to anyone else. On the desks we’ve installed perspex screens that have the sales executive on one side and the customer on the other, and we’ve done the same on our service and reception points. 

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There’s also an extensive use of signage to direct people to the correct area of the business, and the same outside: there’s a parking space between each car, ensuring social distancing is done properly.” Test drives will now take place without sales staff, too, albeit with extra security measures, such as customers having to leave their own car keys at the dealer when trying out a new model.

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The message, therefore, is clear: the car-buying experience may be somewhat different from how it was before coronavirus hit, but the measures taken to keep staff and customers safe are wide-ranging, and dealers are ready to welcome buyers back. 

“We’re open for business”, Foulds says - even if he admits things may be relatively quiet at first. “I’d love there to be queues in some respects, but I believe the public at large will remain a little bit cautious.” That’s good news for those who do venture down to their local dealer, though, as reduced footfall could well open up some attractive deals. 

Online sales are expected to make up an ever-growing proportion of buyers, though, while another big job for dealers is to get the cars and vans that were due to be delivered as the lockdown was introduced to customers - a significant task for Trust Ford, which has about 2,000 vehicles waiting to head to new owners.

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It’s not just about the cars, though: Trust Ford furloughed 2,500 of its 3,000 staff during the lockdown period, with remaining members of its team kept on to help service keyworkers’ cars and run parts departments. Reopening dealerships has seen the company bring 500 staff back, with more team members being unfurloughed as sales pick back up. 

What are my options for buying a car?

With car showrooms in the UK now open, so you can just walk in and buy a new or used car in the way you would have before the lockdown. But there are many other options available for those who would rather not visit a dealer in person. 

Dealerships have been offering click and collect services and remote car sales, while online retailers, such as our sister site Buyacar.co.uk, are still operating and some manufacturers are offering a fully remote new car buying service.

Browsing the market

With car showrooms across the UK open you can now look at any prospective purchases in person, removing a major barrier to buying cars that existed during the lockdown. However, there are still options to do in-depth research without leaving your home. We live in an online age where images, specification data and prices of both new and used cars can be viewed on dealer websites and other online buying platforms.

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Many dealers have videos accompanying their car listings, often with a voiceover or captions explaining some of the features of the vehicle. In addition, brands such as SEAT and Skoda are having their dealer product experts conduct video livestreams of their cars from their driveways, answering questions from prospective customers about the models they might be interested in and providing other help and advice live.

Buying cars online

Further to simply looking at a car online, some platforms allow the entire car-buying and delivery process to take place remotely.

One example is Auto Express’ sister site, Buyacar. Customers can find cars on this site, make their purchase either outright or via a finance package, and then have the car delivered to their home. 

There are also a number of brands - such as Peugeot, Tesla and Vauxhall - with online or app-based sales platforms already in place so buying a car from the comfort of your own home was perfectly possible before the coronavirus struck.

Has coronavirus changed your car-buying plans? Take our survey and tell us how...

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