Checking it out

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

A customer, David, who declined to give his last name, looks over a new car from the driver’s seat at Honda of Keene on Thursday with the help of salesman Jim LaPointe.

While it’s debatable whether the middle of a pandemic is a good time to buy a car, it’s likely the cleanest.

Car dealerships nationwide have had to rethink their policies and procedures when it comes to selling and servicing vehicles as they try to do their part to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. The result has been more emphasis on online sales, exchanging paperwork without any physical contact, wearing face masks for in-person interactions and disinfecting the interior surfaces of cars after they’ve undergone test-drives, routine maintenance or repairs.

“We’re being overly cautious at the moment,” Donovan Fenton of Fenton Family Dealerships said Thursday. “We want to stay open and do what’s right for our employees and customers.”

The local company runs five dealerships: Subaru of Keene, Hyundai of Keene, Toyota of Keene, Volvo Cars Keene and Honda of Keene. The Volvo, Toyota and Honda dealerships are on Route 12 in East Swanzey, and the Subaru and Hyundai dealerships are on Production Avenue in Keene.

Fenton said the dealerships are following guidelines from the state government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and daily operations look different than before the pandemic. Now, in addition to employees and customers being required to wear face masks, there are plastic partitions to protect them when conducting business, and markers on the floor reminding people to stay 6 feet apart, he said. Outdoor seating areas have also been added for customers who may not want to stay in the indoor waiting rooms, he said.

Before employees start work each day, their temperatures are taken with a touchless thermometer, and they are asked the questions hospitals are using to screen for COVID-19, he said.

And while vehicles that were being sold or traded in were always cleaned, vacuumed and detailed, the dealerships now use a 99.9 percent sanitation spray that kills the coronavirus, according to Fenton. The spray is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is nontoxic, he said.

Fenton, who is also one of Keene’s representatives in the N.H. House, said customers have been receptive to the changes, including the mask requirement.

New Hampshire doesn’t mandate that people wear masks while out in public, leaving the matter up to cities and towns. Neither Swanzey nor Keene has a mask requirement; however, Randy L. Filiault, a Keene city councilor, has proposed one.

“We’ve had very little pushback. But if I have to speak to a customer about it, I tell them I have a 2-year-old at home, and I’m wearing a mask to protect my son as well as whoever is in the customer’s family,” Fenton said.

Similar health and safety precautions have been taken at Monadnock Ford in North Swanzey, which has also added some new services to limit physical contact between customers and employees.

Owner Vadim Makhlis said Thursday that as concerns with the pandemic began to ramp up, the business voluntarily closed its showroom to the public at the end of March and went to an appointment-only arrangement. That has worked out well, as has offering unaccompanied test-drives so a person can try out a car without the salesperson tagging along, according to Makhlis.

“It’s hard to social-distance in a car,” he said.

Of the changes, being able to test-drive a vehicle without a salesperson has been the most well-received by customers, and it’s something the business may continue in the long term, he said.

“It’s a leap of faith, admittedly,” he said. “I’m not sure I’d do it in every part of the country, but in Cheshire County, I feel fairly comfortable with it.”

Each vehicle is cleaned when it comes back from a test-drive, and the dealership has also started using seat, gear-shift and steering-wheel covers in both the sales and service departments, he said.

The service department has also begun offering to pick up customers’ cars for maintenance or repairs, and then return them when the work is done.

Some chairs have been moved out of the waiting room so distances of 6 feet can be maintained, and the business is limiting the number of people who are in the showroom at a time, he said.

Monadnock Glass, which is across from the Route 12 dealership, built custom glass screens for the service writer and cashier areas, and there is a sign on the door asking customers to wear masks, according to Makhlis. If a customer doesn’t have a mask, the dealership can give them one to wear, he said.

“A lot of people don’t do it, and we’re not fighting it. It hasn’t been mandated by the state,” he said.

Sales trends

Several media reports note a nationwide uptick in buying cars online since the pandemic began. According to a May 21 article from CNBC, customers are demanding more online and personalized services when shopping for a vehicle, and dealers and automakers are investing millions in new digital sales tools. One expert, Mike Jackson, chairman and chief executive officer of AutoNation, was quoted as saying the pandemic has been an accelerant to online sales for the industry. The company is the country’s largest auto retailer, according to the article.

However, both Fenton and Makhlis said they aren’t seeing that trend locally.

When the pandemic first started, Fenton said Fenton Family Dealerships was preparing for a rise in online sales, but it hasn’t happened.

“In this rural area, we don’t see that. The customer still wants to come in and purchase a vehicle,” he said. “We’ve been lucky that area customers still come in on a daily basis, and the manufacturers have some great programs and incentives right now.”

Sales at his family’s dealerships have certainly slowed down since the outbreak began, but not as badly as they’d anticipated, he said. He added that the business continues to contribute to the community during the pandemic.

“I don’t know what will happen this summer and fall, but as of right now, we’re OK,” he said.

Makhlis said Monadnock Ford has remained open during the pandemic with a skeleton crew. From mid-March to the end of that month, it was like everything had stopped, and there was almost no business, he noted, but things have improved since then.

On the sales side, the dealership did very well in April, according to Makhlis, selling more than 40 cars with a staff of just two salespeople and one manager. Sales have continued to do well in May, and were on pace to potentially make this the dealership’s best month ever, he said.

Ford is offering zero-percent financing and three months deferred payments on new vehicle purchases, and that is attractive to potential buyers, he said. He also believes the relatively low number of Cheshire County residents testing positive for COVID-19 may have people feeling a bit more confident.

“I think it’s going to be a very busy summer.”