NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Every aspect of the economy has been touched in some way by government-imposed coronavirus restrictions, and car dealerships are no exception — facing the task of selling and maintaining cars during a time when fewer people are on the road, and many have lost income, in addition to needing to bring extra attention to cleaning and disinfecting both the cars and facilities.
“We’ve had our share of problems,” Ed Tarbox, owner of the Tarbox Auto Group and its two North Kingstown dealerships, Tarbox Toyota and Tarbox Hyundai said. “We think of other Rhode Islanders who certainly have it tougher, but it’s been challenging to say the least (for) anybody in the retail business,” and particularly restaurants, he said.
With these challenges in mind, dealerships such as Tarbox have implemented new ways of doing business to keep their customers and employees safe.
“It’s been fluid so it’s been difficult to keep up with all of the things you should or shouldn’t be doing and what the protocols are, but we studied it all early,” Tarbox said. “The service department was considered an essential business, so we sent out accommodations to all of our customer base (and) let them know that we’ll come pick your car up, we won’t have (any) interaction with you.”
Tarbox has introduced a Customer Assistance Program, which promises no payments up to 90 days after purchase, while offering a complete online car shopping experience, where customers can buy a car online and have it delivered to their home to purchase or test drive, with unpurchased cars being thoroughly cleaned after.
For those who still want to visit the dealership in person, meetings with salespeople can be arranged by appointment, with similar measures also in place at Paul Masse Buick GMC in South Kingstown.
“If coming to the dealership is still too risky for you at this time, please stay home,” Paul Masse wrote in a release available on the dealership website. “We have many options to assist you if you need a new vehicle or service. Through our Shop Click Drive 24/7, a vehicle can be purchased online and delivered to your door. [It’s] quick, convenient and safe.”
Both dealers have also limited their hours and are closed on Sundays until further notice.
“We’ve made accommodations for all service customers and showroom customers (and) it’s worked out,” Tarbox said. “We have lines striping down in the service department, we’ve got face shields up, so we’ve got all of the basic protocols that you see when you go everywhere else. We’ve got the signs on the building that let you know what the protocol is, how we’re conducting business, and most people engage us digitally now, so if they’re interested in a car, if they have to buy a car even with the COVID (pandemic), or they have somebody in the family who has COVID, we can make accommodations for them.”
As for the business right now, Tarbox says it has been gradually growing as restrictions have began to ease.
“We’ve been slowly ramping up, but now we’re probably about 70 percent of where we should be in the show room and probably about 80 percent of where we should be in the service and parts operation, so we’re slowly ramping up,” Tarbox said, adding he expects business to pick up more once the state enters Phase 2 of its re-opening plan.
Employees have also begun returning to the dealership, something which Tarbox says has been a challenge at times.
“Our bigger challenge has been getting our employees re-engaged,” Tarbox said. “We got our application into BankRI early and got our PPP money, but that is a two-edged sword because if you get the money early, the challenge is you’ve got eight weeks to get your payroll up to a percentage of what it had been pre-COVID, but you don’t want to bring more staff into the store to expose them, and you don’t want more people hanging out in here that can accommodate any business that you’re doing.”
In order to encourage staff to return and compensate them, Tarbox has offered an additional $200 weekly in hazard pay, and adds that all core members of the staff are back.
At the same time, Tarbox also says that while his company worked early to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and other government programs, the process has been “a little bit daunting.”
“What’s funny about the PPP and some of the government initiatives (is that) they put the burden of administering healthcare and payroll on the businesses while we’re facing the same situation with COVID, I mean how are we supposed to do that?,” Tarbox said. “If I have an office manager that handled payroll or HR or paying out PTO (and) if one of them were to be exposed and I had a problem there, I wouldn’t be able to accommodate the necessities of the PPP program with the Family Medical Leave Act expansion and the federal program they did which was a payroll offset, so there’s been a lot of administrative stuff that had to be done and they put the burden of that on businesses.”
Tarbox has received assistance in applying for PPP and other protections from Toyota and Hyundai themselves as well, saying both automakers have been helpful and supportive in the process, in addition to COVID-compliant cleaning supplies.
For those who were looking at buying a car before COVID hit and may be on the fence about if now is the right time, Tarbox advices them to “go at their own pace.”
“It’s a great time to buy a car,” Tarbox said. “We don’t have a lot of customers, so we’re very eager to sell... We can have someone drop their car off at their house, we can sanitize the car and walk away and let you have it for a day, so you can just contact us and make sure that we go at your pace and that you’re comfortable. Everyone has a different tolerance for what’s going on.”