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Across the country, repair shops have been declared essential services (Photo : Shutterstock)

Taking a look at how service providers are adapting to a brave new world.

Since March, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused both the Federal and Provincial governments in Canada to impose strict measures to combat the spread of the virus. This has included ordinances that have demanded the closure of all non-essential business.

As these measures were taking, associations representing the Automotive Aftermarket Industry including the Automotive Industries Association of Canada (AIA Canada), the Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario (AARO) and the Automotive Retailers Association (ARA) in British Columbia, took steps to ensure that automotive service repair facilities be declared essential businesses, considering that the vast majority of the population in this country is car-dependent, and that vehicles need to be properly maintained to ensure essential workers, such as healthcare professionals, grocery store staff and transportation staff such as truck and delivery drivers are able to perform their tasks as safely and efficiently as possible.

Essential service

On March 19, AIA Canada issued a statement that the automotive aftermarket industry is and should be recognized as an essential service as governments looked to impose lockdowns to limit the spread of COVID-19. When lockdowns began with Ontario and Quebec declaring states of emergency on March 24, automotive service providers were deemed essential services. Yet as these provincial lockdowns have continued to be rolled out, how these businesses were allowed to operate has varied from province to province. In Quebec, all non-essential vehicle repairs, including regular service and maintenance were not permitted between March 24 and April 15.

In other provinces, practices have been slightly different. In Ontario automotive service providers could choose to remain open as essential services; but must prioritize the transportation and automotive service needs of essential workers above and beyond the needs of regular motorists. Diane Freeman, Executive Director of the Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario (AARO) says that based on feedback from a recent study the association conducted, data available indicates that most AARO association members have continued to remain open during the pandemic.

Based on our information, 53 percent of our members have chosen to remain open but in many cases; business is down 35 percent or more.

— Diane Freeman, Executive Director, AARO

Interestingly, out of those businesses that have remained open, 20 percent have said that it has been business of usual. In fact, one Ontario service provider we spoke to (who declined to be named) said that his shop was operating at full capacity!

Lower capacity

In most cases however, shops are operating at lower capacity and employing fewer staff, while taking measures to ensure the safety of both those employees that are working and the customers they serve.

Given the extent of the COVID-19 crisis and the economic impact that government lockdowns are having, many businesses, including aftermarket service providers are very much aware of government programs being offered through the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan. These include the Canadian Emergency Business Account (which provides interest free loans for up to $40,000 for qualifying businesses) the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy that covers up to 75 percent of employee wages for businesses that qualify) as well as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for individuals who have lost their income as a direct result of COVID-19).

According to Diane Freeman, 93 percent of AARO members were aware of these programs, though she did note that as of April 13, approximately half of the members surveyed would be taking advantage of these government programs. “We were quite surprised that more members did not say they would be taking advantage of them,” she says, though reasons why they weren’t at this point often appeared to revolve around the need for more research into these programs.

Overall, in terms of delivery of information, AARO has seen a 95 percent satisfaction rate in terms of getting timely and accurate messaging out to its members including government updates.

List of precautions

The association has also taken great steps to ensure it provides its members with a list of precautions to be taken during the COVID-19 crisis such as face and hand protection for staff, as well as social distancing practices, plus AARO has taken steps to provide posters for members to display in their shops. These include everything from what to do if you are displaying COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath, to drop off Instructions for customers at repair shops, directives on stopping the spread and directives for washing your hands and sanitizing.

In other parts of the country, similar guidelines are being followed. In Alberta, automotive service providers are also deemed essential services and those that are open for business are taking necessary precautions to operate as effectively as possible during these uncertain times.

At 3 Son’s Auto Integra Tire in the community of St. Albert, just outside Edmonton, shop owner Brad York says that the need to maintain social distancing (regulations call for a minimum of 2 metres/6-feet between individuals) hasn’t changed the nature of operations too drastically. “Most people understand the rules,” he says. Additionally, the shop has taken precautions by reducing the number of waiting spots available by having no more than 2-3 people in the shop vicinity at any one time to maintain the 2-metre distance requirements.

Frontline workers prioritized

Also, when it comes to performing repairs, York says that because the business has been deemed as providing an essential service, frontline workers are given priority. “We are leaving appointments open for emergency situations and are not scheduling lots of tire changeovers at this point. Our main focus right now is to provide support where it is most needed and for those essential workers who depend on their vehicle to allow them to perform their day-to-day tasks, we are trying to provide fast, efficient turnarounds.”

In neighbouring British Columbia, Peter Foreman, who owns and operates Foreman’s Integra Tire in Langley, B.C., says that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted business by 40-50 percent. “Before the virus hit, we were on a trajectory to perform better this year than we did in 2019,” says Foreman.

Being declared an essential business in the province, Foreman has taken steps to ensure the shop remains operational, though has cut back staffing numbers to just three. “Normally there is myself; a service advisor behind the counter and three technicians as well as a valet/ lot person,” he says. “Currently there is just myself in the office and we have two technicians in the service bays on rotation (two weeks on, one week off).”

Foreman says he’s currently working 12-14 hours a day in order to handle the combined roles of customer service, marketing, administration, operations and valet servicing but things continue to move along.

Changing day by day

“It’s really hard to know what the future will bring because things are changing day by day and even hour by hour,” he says. Like Brad York and countless other service providers across the country, Foreman and his team are prioritizing services for frontline workers who need vehicle maintenance work performed. This not only includes getting vehicles in the shop but also performing valet service such as picking up and dropping off to maximize convenience.

Foreman introduces his valet service in 2019 and says that while it took a few months to get up to speed, being ahead of the curve has really allowed the service to come into its own during the pandemic.

Other steps Foreman and his team have taken include using a UV purifier system to decontaminate every vehicle that is brought to the shop prior for repairs and once again after the work is performed. The shop area is closed; and all transactions are handled electronically via online payment or features such as Interact e-transfer, while parts deliveries are now left in a special bin to minimize contact. When customers need to pick up their vehicle, a special exchange table is set up for handing over keys to maximize social distancing and safety.

Foreman says that having a business coach has proved a lifeline during the COVID-19 crisis but notes that once cases of COVID-19 start to decline and lockdown measures are lifted, shops need to be prepared.

We are in communication once a week and one of the most useful tools has been a cashflow forecast. As it stands right now, we can manage through this.

— Peter Foreman, Président, Foreman’s Integra Tire in Langley, B.C

“Get ready,” he says. “Things could change very quickly and we could see a rapid boom. The best thing we can all do right now is to keep our fingers on the pulse and our hands on the gear shift, because when things change, we’ll likely need to move fast.”


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