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By Collin Breaux: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @collin_breaux
There was a six- to eight-week period, from mid-March to early May, in which business at Capistrano Volkswagen/Mazda was off by as much as 75% for sales and service.
“It was the worst I’ve ever endured in the car business,” owner Miles Brandon said.
Sales eventually bounced back in May, and service rebounded in June, with overall business stabilizing since then.
Like everyone else, auto dealers in San Juan Capistrano are adjusting to the different world that’s emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve been trying to work on a lot of things to make it easier for people to buy a car from their own couch and house,” Brandon said. “With COVID, it charged our efforts. We regularly take cars to customers’ homes for a test drive.”
Capistrano Volkswagen/Mazda didn’t fully push that option before the health crisis, but it is responding to customer needs and a growing preference for online shopping. Someone buying a new car might do all the preliminary work online, only visiting a dealership at the end to pick up the keys.
Even so, some people still prefer to visit lots in person to browse and look over cars.
“One of the things we’re most proud of is, even though business was way off for six to eight weeks, we virtually laid off no one,” Brandon said. “That’s in large part because we’ve always known our people are our No. 1 asset.”
A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan that the business secured also helped. Brandon said inventory availability hasn’t been a big issue for their two brands.
“We’re just going to move forward and take care of everything a day at a time, with what is presented in front of us,” Brandon said.
Sal Gutierrez, general manager for Ocean Honda, said business has ramped back up after the sales department was initially shut down for a while at the outset of the pandemic.
“It was a fluid process—the guidelines for what to do to conduct business in a safe manner,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve always been big on providing customer service and customer care. That’s helped us in this case.”
Ocean Honda is also facilitating home deliveries and online signatures for sales. More people are returning to the lot in person, though, as coronavirus cases go down in Orange County and restrictions ease.
Ocean Honda employees have trained for how to interact with customers based on new health guidelines, including maintaining social distancing and avoiding handshakes. Ocean Honda representatives also ask customers if they’re comfortable coming inside the dealership to discuss numbers or if they prefer to do that via email.
“In the past, we want the sale right now; get them in,” Gutierrez said. “What changes now is, what do they want to do? How are they going to be comfortable moving forward?”
Steve Smith, general manager at Tuttle Click’s Capistrano Ford, said their revenues were off about 50% in March and April. Conveniences such as online vehicle purchasing and contactless payments are now available for customers.
“Although volume is still down, we are optimistic that market conditions will continue to improve,” Smith said. “When you face such adversity, you have no choice but to adjust the way you do business.”