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A Time of Unity and Reinvention for Dealerships

Michael Eatson By: Michael Eatson June 5, 2021

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. That is how I will remember the year 2020, when my dealership – along with 1,100 other dealerships throughout Ontario – faced the single biggest challenge in its history.

It remains to be seen what the full impact of COVID-19 will be on the retail car industry, but there are many plusses that have emerged from this stressful and unpredictable period.

As a dealer principal, one of the things I’m proudest of is how our employees (at Peterborough Volkswagen) rallied together and did what was necessary to keep our business operating efficiently and to meet customer expectations.

In late March 2020, we received a set of health and safety guidelines from the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association. Our team embraced these guidelines without hesitation or complaint and began implementing them right away.

From day one, when businesses across Ontario were ordered to shut down, a spirit of cooperation existed among all departments. Individual team members adopted all of the safety protocols and introduced new business practices with a positive mindset.

My story isn’t unique. All new car dealerships displayed resiliency, resourcefulness and creativity in deploying safe business practices and adapting to new business realities.

Not only did dealership staff rally internally to keep their businesses operating safely. They also reached out to their respective communities and provided assistance for people and organizations in need.

Dealers provided PPE products and loaned vehicles to hospitals and healthcare workers. They donated to food banks and provided meals to frontline workers. Tales of dealership largesse are too numerous to mention, but all 1,100 dealerships provided some form of outreach and assistance for the benefit of their communities.

In one instance, a dealer group in the municipality of Chatham-Kent helped to organize a food drive that attracted 3,000 volunteers and raised 700 lbs. of food in a single day. A week later, the same group attracted 10,000 volunteers and raised two million lbs. of food for local residents.

Of course, COVID-19 paved the way for many innovations in the retail car industry, some of which were long overdue. For instance, many dealers realized that their websites were incapable of accommodating the expected boost in online traffic and increased car shopping activity.

As a result, websites were quickly updated, door-to-door pick-up and drop-off services and digital signature capabilities were introduced. This digital signature capability, which replaces an ink signature with a digital one, lays an important foundation for remote selling possibilities at a later time, in accordance with all legal regulations.

One undeniable fact about the pandemic is that, despite the social distancing and isolation, it has served to unite people and communities everywhere.

Community is a difficult thing to define. It’s about shared experiences and values, a sense of caring, of belonging, and of pride of place. It is providing assistance to those in need and coming together in good and bad times.

I recall the global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, and how our business struggled like many others. During that stressful time, everybody made personal sacrifices, and in a strange way, our community felt more connected than ever.

Same with the current COVID-19 crisis. Although this global pandemic has inflicted a heavy toll on communities across the province, it has also brought people together. It has made us aware of how fragile life is, and how events occurring in a different corner of the world can affect millions of lives elsewhere.

The next time you visit a new car dealership, for sales, service or parts, think about the important role it plays in your community, serving the vital transportation needs of its customers and supporting a variety of organizations in unique ways.

Michael Eatson is president of the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association and is president of Peterborough Volkswagen. This column represents the views and values of the TADA. Write to president@tada.ca or go to tada.ca. For information about automotive trends and careers, visit carsandjobs.com.