The pandemic is changing how people buy cars forever as dealerships post virtual tours on YouTube and bring cars to customers' homes to test drive

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

  • With foot traffic to dealerships basically nonexistent, dealerships and automakers are figuring out how to adapt in a post-pandemic world, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Many are pivoting toward virtual walkthroughs and tours.
  • Automakers such as Mercedes-Benz are questioning the need for big retail spaces.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories .

With no end in sight to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the US unemployment rate at a Depression-era-level high , people aren't exactly rushing into car dealerships to buy cars.

Automakers and dealerships are hurting as a result. They are trying to figure out how to adapt to the current situation.

The traditional dealership model is a familiar one to many: big, open spaces with a few highly polished models on the show floor and perhaps dozens more on the lot, waiting to be taken out and test-driven. If the dealership is more upscale and luxury-focused, there will likely also be a seating area with WiFi, refreshments, comfy couches, and entertainment like magazines or television.

But the pandemic has all but brought showroom foot traffic to a screeching halt, according to the Wall Street Journal . Citing J.D. Power, it reports car sales have dropped 59% "below the level expected before the health crisis."

As a result, dealers and automakers are scrambling to find a way to change how they've typically done things to suit this new reality.

The Wall Street Journal examined a few automakers and car sales companies, including Infiniti, Volvo, Carvana, and Mercedes-Benz.

Infiniti is using the downtime from empty showrooms to figure out how to show off its cars via videoconferencing. It's been training salespeople on how to create virtual tours of cars. About 60% of Infiniti retailers are bringing fully sanitized cars straight to customers' homes for test drives as well.

Volvo, too, is using tools such as virtual walkarounds and improving its websites for better user experience.

Carvana, famous for its car vending machines, is implementing social distancing at its locations.

Mercedes-Benz is questioning the need for big retail spaces. "Do vehicle showrooms and service facilities have to be shared in the same location?" a Mercedes-Benz spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal. "We are looking at many areas which invite the natural questions of what to keep, what to cut, and what to amplify."

You can read the rest of the Wall Street Journal story here.

Anyway, all of this is to say that it's still a time of enormous uncertainty and there is no automaker or dealer that has one, clear-cut way of approaching the issue.

Business Insider's own senior transportation reporter, David Slotnick , recently picked up a new Subaru Crosstrek during the pandemic. He outlined that the local dealerships he visited in the surrounding New York City area all had varying levels of responsiveness and preparedness for selling cars during the pandemic.

He started by researching the model he wanted and checking online inventories at different dealerships before reaching out to all of them. Most never got back to him.

The one dealership he wound up using, Bay Ridge Subaru, was extremely responsive and had a well-polished and well-executed sales tactic ready to go. The salesperson there answered all of Slotnick's questions over the phone or via email and sent lengthy YouTube video walkarounds of the car because they had banned test drives.

Ordinarily, Slotnick said he would very much prefer a test drive, but after seeing how thorough the dealership was with the virtual tour, he felt much better about the situation. "Based on that, we were confident enough to put a deposit down," he said.

After, just to be sure, he and his wife took a Crosstrek Zipcar out for an hour to see how it felt.

All of the subsequent paperwork title details, registration application were handled over email or the phone.

On the day of picking up the car, the dealer spaced out its customers so only one party at a time was present in the dealership. Slotnick reported that everyone was wearing gloves and masks and he and his wife were shown to a freshly disinfected table and given two fresh pens.

"They seemed very on top of [the process]," Slotnick said.

He and his wife were able to get everything signed, figured out, and were even able to get accessories such as a bike rack fitted to their car before bringing it home that day.

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