North Texas car dealerships are reopening showrooms after receiving ‘essential’ designation

Originally Featured on The Dallas Morning News on April 21, 2020

Car dealerships in North Texas are reopening their showrooms this week under updated federal guidelines that made vehicle sales an essential service.

Dealers contacted by The Dallas Morning News said they’re also ready to offer staples like customer test drives.

On March 20, a week after shelter-in-place orders went into effect in Dallas County, the National Automobile Dealers Association took up the cause of getting auto sales deemed essential.

“These types of sales are not optional,” said association spokeswoman Juliet Guerra. “They are essential to ensure folks have access to transportation, and goods and supplies keep moving.”

Following successful lobbying efforts by the auto dealership industry, “sales” was added to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s definition of essential transportation and logistics businesses. Manufacturing, distribution, rental, leasing, repair and maintenance all had previously been considered essential.

Many dealerships have remained partially open in North Texas because they provide repairs and rentals. They moved the buying process online, delivered vehicles directly to homes and conducted “virtual test drives.”

But dealerships can’t support their businesses through online sales alone, said Bruce Thompson, owner of Plano-based CarOffer and a serial entrepreneur in the car dealership industry.

“It’s the second largest purchasing decision that a consumer will make outside of their home. So a lot of consumers want to go in and touch and feel. And that’s why we have showrooms today,” he said.

COVID-19 wrecked automakers’ first-quarter sales. Last week, new car sales plunged 57% year over year and used car sales fell 51%, according to Cox Automotive.

Ray Huffines, owner of Plano-based Huffines Auto Dealerships, said he’s had to trim expenses at his eight dealerships, including pay cuts for some employees. His dealerships employ more than 750 people.

“We didn’t lay off anybody and we didn’t furlough anybody because we wanted to keep our team together,” said Huffines, who also received a loan under the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program.

Huffines said customers should feel safe about visiting showrooms again.

“Showrooms are very large. There’s plenty of room for people to keep their distance. It’s not like a grocery store or a Home Depot,” he said.

“We were practicing all of the guidelines, even though we were not allowed to have walk-in showroom traffic.”

At Classic Mazda of Denton, general manager Rick Wick has stocked up on hand sanitizer stations, disinfectant wipes and optional masks for employees. He said cleaning crews come through the dealership every night.

“We’re taking every single tool that’s available to us to keep this as clean as we can,” Wick said.

Classic Mazda of Denton is also wrapping steering wheels and car seats with disposable plastic covers as well as misting the interior of vehicles with a disinfectant in between use and before delivering them to customers.

Park Place Dealerships Chief Operating Officer Tony Carimi said the loosening of restrictions will help customers who aren’t comfortable buying online or over the phone.

“The most important thing is meeting the client where they feel comfortable,” Carimi said.

Park Place locations are following the most restrictive safety measures put in place by Texas counties, Carimi said. That means spreading out seating in waiting areas and at sales representatives’ desks. It’s also following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on social distancing and checking employees’ temperatures at the start of the workday, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is our part in helping our community continue to move forward during these unprecedented times,” he said.