Once upon a time, many years ago, I sold cars. And I hated it.
Fortunately, for me and the dealership at that time, it was a career path I didn’t pursue for long. I was a mediocre salesperson and after about five months I pulled the plug, a decision I’ve never regretted.
I’ve been thinking about my old car selling days recently in light of the pandemic and how dealerships have been forced to adapt not only to stay open, but also to keep their employees and customers safe.
You might not think car dealers are essential, but they are one of the few non-government employers that exist in just about ever town in North America, no matter how small. The economic activity they generate in local communities is significant.
Recently, I spoke with Bill Johnston, vice-president of Johnston Chrysler Dodge Jeep Fiat in Hamilton, Ont. The family owns additional Chrysler stores in Brantford and Welland, and Johnston also serves as the head of the dealer council for FCA Canada.
The Hamilton store is one of the oldest auto dealers in Ontario, dating back to 1923 when it was founded by Bill’s great grandfather, William. Bill is the fourth generation Johnston to work in the family business. During a recent phone conversation, he touched on several challenges the past year has presented for his business.
“None of the three stores closed. Ever. We were fortunate enough to be deemed essential services. Some dealerships closed, but we at least kept our parts and service department open even during the initial lockdown in March and April of 2020,” he said.
Apart from the things you’d expect to see a business do to stay operational during a pandemic — plexiglass dividers, floor markings for social distancing, appointment-only business and a reduced staff — Johnston also got creative. He used shift work to bring employees back to his Hamilton store.
“We had three shifts, and two worked at the same time and we increased our hours dramatically, not just for the convenience of our customers but also from a spacing and a safety standpoint so we could get everybody back.”
As for the business itself, Johnston has noticed a shift in consumer shopping habits.
“In 2019, I tracked that approximately 25 per cent of the people who walked through my door already had an appointment. In 2020, even when we were not appointment only, 56 per cent of those coming through the door were on an appointment already,” he said.
Last month, that figure jumped to 90 per cent, primarily due to an appointment-only policy, but Johnston said a few wandered in without one. He thinks the number will stay high, even after the pandemic passes, because of the willingness of shoppers to do more research, and even the purchase transaction, online. The websites for all of Johnston’s stores were upgraded last summer to accommodate a surge in traffic.
As for his role as head of dealer council, Johnston said constant communication with head office has been key.
“I can tell you at that at the height of the pandemic, David Buckingham (FCA Canada president and CEO) and I talked every day. It’s important to get the communication and funnel it out, to talk to the dealers and tell them what’s coming on. Between that and having all-dealer calls (it’s important) so everybody feels comfortable and knows that we’re in it together,” he said.
At one point in our chat, I asked Johnston if he thought the pandemic had been a driver of innovation. I found the answer to be a bit surprising.
“I don’t think there are so many new ideas that we’ve had, we’ve just implemented them more consistently.”