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Westlock car dealers adapt to 'challenging times'

steve darr
Steve Darr, dealer principal of Brown's Chrysler in Westlock, says the last three months have been the most challenging of his 25-year career. Photo supplied

Like almost everything else, the vehicle-buying experience has changed since COVID-19 hit in mid-March.

Three dealers in the town of Westlock, 90 km northwest of Edmonton, have made all the necessary adjustments — from COVID-19 protocols to expanded pickup and delivery.

"We remain happy to accommodate sales customers after hours, and also from the comfort of their homes," said Steve Darr, dealer principal of Brown's Chrysler.

He said introducing the COVID-19 measures – including hand sanitizers and physical distancing – has been smooth, but he does admit the past few months have been "the most challenging times of my 25-year career."

Brown's has remained open, but on a reduced schedule, said Darr, adding almost all employees have been hired back.

Since mid-March, Darr said vehicle sales overall are down slightly, but added "we are seeing very positive improvements to traffic daily.

"Customers tend to gravitate to the used-car market for cost savings, but with the current incentives and borrowing rates it makes a new vehicle much more attractive."

The dealer principal of Westlock Motors also admits operating a dealership during COVID-19 has been a challenge.

"Business has been very unpredictable and hard to manage," said Todd Ducharme. However, he did say the transition to COVID-19 protocols went off without any major issues.

"We started doing more customer pick up and drop off, a more regimented disinfection routine for keys, vehicles, customer touch points, washrooms and waiting areas," said Ducharme, adding "gloves are used by anyone in contact with a customer vehicle."

Todd DucharmeTodd Ducharme, dealer principal of Westlock Motors, says COVID-19 has created challenges in recent months but he remains optimistic going forward. Photo supplied

Ducharme, who was forced to make a small reduction to his staff total, has concerns about the pandemic's broader affect.

"I hope that it is a slight economic hurdle, but I feel it has been a huge impact to many, many people in the area of mental health," he said.  "We are social creatures and need to interact with family, friends and co-workers. When that is interrupted, we feel it."

Despite that, Ducharme remains optimistic, due to the town's strong sense of community.

"The fact that we live in a great community in a great province within a great country where we are free and have the support of a health care system – second to none – is something we should be thankful for."

The dealer principal since 1996, Ducharme said sales at Westlock Motors dropped between 30-40 per cent over April-May, saying,  "The people who are buying are more needs buyers."

Since then, he said, "we are seeing some recovery, but still down about 20-25 per cent." Ducharme added, "service has been a little better as people… want to keep current vehicles in good running order."

It's been a different story at Westlock Ford, where business has remained steady during the pandemic.

'When you look at sales so far this year compared to 2019, we are on par," said Paul Olsen, dealer principal since 2016.

He has not noticed any change in customers buying habits during COVID-19.

“They may be buying or upgrading their truck – but they do that every spring. It's not much different than last year, although we emphasize pickup and delivery a bit more.”

Olsen said hours have remained the same since mid-March and he has retained virtually all 21 staff he had before the pandemic.

"At our dealership everyone has adjusted well. People realized that the sanitizers and washing your hands are good things. It's just peace of mind."

He said there have been no hiccups for his staff during the transition. “We have a pretty open line of communications," said Olsen, who personally avoids reading news stories about COVID-19.

He said he has been impressed with Westlock eateries that remained open during the initial weeks of the pandemic.

"Some people really pushed curbside pickup – they had no choice. Not everyone did that," said Olsen, adding employees at Westlock Ford have been among the regular customers.

There are no active COVID-19 cases in Westlock County.

Gary Poignant is a freelance writer and regular contributor to AlbertaPrimeTimes.com. This story was funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Supporting Local News Coverage of COVID-19 Program via the Local Media Foundation.





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