A continued look at how the aftermarket and service providers are navigating through the challenging environment of COVID-19.
Recently, CarCare Business embarked on a quest to ask service providers across Canada about how they are adapting to the environmental and economic conditions created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a follow up to our original story we bring you some more observations from both service providers in different communities and also from the Automotive Industries Association of Canada (AIA Canada), that represents aftermarket businesses at both the provincial and federal level.
There is no question that COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on just about everybody in this country and around the world. As governments in provinces, states and territories across the globe introduced lockdowns to help contain the spread of the disease, this new economic reality has forced those businesses that remain open to adjust their practices and look for new ways to continue serving their customers effectively and safely.
Rising to the occasion
When government lockdowns were first being considered in this country, AIA Canada, urged government to ensure that automotive aftermarket businesses were deemed essential services and would continue to operate during the crisis. Now, several weeks into lockdown mode, AIA Canada President Jean-François Champagne says that he has seen the aftermarket industry rise to the occasion with many businesses continuing to offer the service necessary to keep frontline workers on the move. Yet he’s keenly aware of the challenges that many of them are currently facing.
Most service providers that are currently operating, have seen a significant reduction in business and capacity, but are still working to maintain services and keep both their staff and their customers safe.
— Jean-François Champagne, President, AIA Canada
He notes that while here in Canada, as well as the U.S. and other countries, the aftermarket has largely been recognized as providing essential services, there has been some confusion as to what “essential” actually means in terms of the type of services being able to be performed.
In Quebec, for example, the provincial government initially imposed fairly draconian lockdown measures, designed to minimize the spread of COVID-19 via community transmission. For many aftermarket businesses, activities were severely restricted, with only emergency repairs allowed to be performed. Recently, the province modified the requirements meaning that service providers can once again offer a full range of vehicle servicing needs, while continuing to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols.
For Champagne and AIA Canada, this recent change by the Quebec government has been a welcome one, providing greater clarity and arguably consistency with regulations in force in other regions such as Ontario, Atlantic Canada and the western provinces.
He also says that at this critical time, it is important that aftermarket businesses are able to adapt to the changing environment, such as pre-booking appointments and leveraging technologies such as social media, digital inspections and contactless payment transactions.
Champagne notes that some of these strategies can help address some longstanding issues, such as underperformed maintenance, since technology allows transparent communication with customers and better ways to schedule and organize the business like never before.
Champagne also believes that the impact of COVID-19 can likely help spread awareness about the important role the aftermarket plays in the Canadian economy. “There is an opportunity here to properly educate the public and government about the importance of the aftermarket—the business that takes care of vehicle maintenance from day two until the end of its life which can be 15 years or more,” he says. “While OEMs and new car dealers do play an important role, the day two scenario and those people taking care of the 26-million used vehicles on our roads play a big part in keeping Canadian motorists safe.”
At the local level, service providers across the country are doing just that. In Ontario; Ian Guerts, who operates Grafton Automotive, in Grafton Ont., a small community located east of Coburg on the 401-corridor, says that as a small operator, he’s had to temporarily lay off four of his six staff. “We’re still taking in appointments for work where people need it,” he says, “and much of that has been seasonal scheduled maintenance and tire changeovers.”
Guerts says that while the shop has instigated safety protocols, including disinfecting vehicles and social distancing measures, customers have tended to react to the new operating procedures in different ways. “Some want a completely contactless service, while some still want some form of personal interaction,” he says. And while his front office remains open, when a client comes in, not only are surfaces and debit machines cleaned before and after they leave, each client is also logged. “It is a precaution we take, because sometimes the person coming in to pick up the vehicle might not be the same as the person billed for the work. If a health issue results, we are able to track what happened, who was here and when and make the necessary calls and arrangements to help.”
Guerts says that while it is difficult to predict what the outcome of the crisis will be for independent service providers like him, he says some processes implement during COVID-19 could be around for the longer term.
This situation has forced people to change their behaviour and has introduced new habits and some may want to have less interaction overall in the future.I think the next six months are going to be very interesting.
— Ian Guerts, Dealer Principal, Grafton Automotive
In New Brunswick, which has seen some of the fewest cases of COVID-19 (118 as of April 21, with no deaths reported and 98 recoveries and no new cases), lockdown measures have still had a very significant impact on the population. Doug Reevey, who owns and operates Auto-Tec in Saint John, N.B., says he has seen business fall significantly as a result of the pandemic, though Auto-Tec still continues to operate with almost its full complement of staff.
The shop’s four technicians continue to perform service and repairs, with some staff rotations in effect on days where demand is slower. Reevey says adjusting to a “new normal” of operating has been challenging but he’s very grateful of being able to keep Auto-Tec open at a time when so many other businesses have had to close.
Although many of his fleet and retail customers have chosen to delay vehicle maintenance unless deemed absolutely essential, lower customer volumes have given the business a chance to take stock and introduce initiatives to help both staff and customers. “Every vehicle that comes in is sanitized before we work on it,” says Reevey. “Once the work has been performed, the vehicle is sanitized again before it is delivered,” he says.
Much of Reevey’s customer base has been built on solid relationships and he notes that today, communication via text, phone or email is a far cry from how things have traditionally been. “Typically, it’s been face to face, but now, we have to wave at each other through the window and restrict our conversations on the phone or via text,” he says.
Yet some tools the shop has introduced over the last few years are proving beneficial during the COVID-19 crisis. One has been digital inspections Auto-Tec offers through its partnership with AutoServe1. “This has proved to be a great way for communicating with our customers so we can show them what work needs to be prioritized and what can be deferred if necessary,” says Reevey.
Social media tools have also been highly effective in allowing the shop to advertise new services such as complimentary pick-up and delivery of vehicles within the Saint John city limits. “We reached out to our customers early on,” says Reevey, who notes that while the uptick was slow to start with, it has increased significantly in recent weeks. Many customers, including older people and frontline workers have really appreciated the pick-up and delivery service.
Health and wellness
And while the shop, like many has prioritized servicing and vehicle repairs for frontline workers, Reevey is also quick to point out that the health and wellbeing of staff is also critical during these uncertain times. Besides COVID-19 protocols such as cleaning and disinfecting vehicles, as well as countertops and debit machines (for those customers that are unable to do transactions online) Reevey also holds weekly staff meetings every Friday, to see how his staff are not only doing physically, but also mentally. These are stressful times for everyone and these meetings provide us with a chance to talk and see how everybody is doing and if they are still comfortable coming to work. We want to do everything we can to make sure our staff are safe and that our customers also feel safe and are comfortable continuing to do business with us.”
Reevey says, that while it is hard to predict what the future may bring, he notes that when it comes to the easing of restrictions and the economy starting to open up again, the process is likely to be gradual and in phases. “I think we will need to continue using some of the procedures we are doing now for the foreseeable future, such as wiping down cars and doing the pickups and drop-offs.” He says he doesn’t expect to see a return to near normal operations for possibly 18 months, when a vaccine will likely have been developed. In the meantime, Auto-Tec continues to ensure it is doing everything possible to service its customers effectively and safely.
Supporting the community
Back in, Ontario, Scott Eccles, who owns and operates Eccles Auto Service in Dundas has been adopting similar COVID-19 procedures, such as wiping down and disinfecting vehicles, maintaining social distancing measures for employees and customers and offering essentially a contactless service. Eccles has been fairly steady in terms of business, and like Reevey has almost a full complement of staff working. “Our bays are far enough apart that the technicians can work safely,” says Eccles. A ready supply of gloves, cleaners and disinfectant, along with procedures that follow paramedic guidelines for cleaning vehicles such as ambulances have helped keep both staff and customers safe and healthy.
Recognizing the impact COVID-19 lockdowns have had on many local businesses, Eccles Auto Service has decided to support many of them by providing gift cards from these businesses to the shop’s customers for services they offer such as take-out food delivery. “The idea is to spread awareness about these businesses and find ways to support them. When this pandemic is over, many of the big box stores will likely remain, but the small businesses—the ones that we all dealt with before, will likely not be around unless we support them now.”