Car dealers and customers looking for a new vehicle have been given a glimmer of hope with the latest annoucements around planned easing of Covid-related restrictions.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a proposed roadmap out of lockdown for England while Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also given updated details on plans to ease lockdown in coming months.
That is welcome news for businesses up and down the country which are desperate to get back to normal, including car dealers who have struggled with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.
However, the phased approaches mean not all businesses will be able to restart operations at the same time and industry observers have said they are disappointed with the substantial wait dealerships face before being allowed to fully reopen their showrooms.
Announcing the four-step plan for England, Mr Johnson said the first easing of restrictions would take place on 8 March, with pupils returning to schools. After that, non-essential retailers, including car dealers, will be allowed to reopen from 12 April.
Ms Sturgeon initially said that non-essential retail was no likely to reopen in Scotland until 26 April but the Scottish Government has now revised that plan and showrooms will be able to open for sales on an appointment-only basis from 5 April.
At that point outdoor forecourts will also be allowed to operate as normal.
The Scottish Government has confirmed that customers are already allowed into showrooms to complete click-and-collect purchase but on an appointment-only basis.
Car dealers and their customers have been hard hit by the Covid-19 crisis, with lockdown restrictions causing a dramatic fall in trade. At its worst, in April 2020, the new car market shrank by 97 per cent with just over 4,000 new cars registered. Since then trade has recovered somewhat as dealers adapted and expanded their contactless purchase systems but sales in 2020 were down 30 per cent overall and in January 2021 new registrations were still down 40 per cent year on year.
Rachael Prasher, managing director at consumer magazine What Car?, said: “The announcement to keep non-essential retailers closed until April is disappointing for the automotive sector, which typically does a disproportionate amount of its annual business around the numberplate change in March.
“The disappointment is even greater because automotive retail premises are typically large, open-plan spaces that have previously been proven to be operable in a Covid-safe manner.
“While a target re-opening date offers some hope, the scale of the issue faced by these businesses is clear: though online retail has grown significantly over the past 12 months, new car registrations for the sector were down by nearly 40 per cent in January, caused largely by the lockdown restrictions.
“This pain will now be prolonged - not only setting retailers back, and the country’s recovery in terms of the loss tax income - but also having the knock-on impacts of affecting employment prospects across the manufacturing and OEM sectors as well as the aftermarket and supply sectors.”
How to buy a car during lockdown
While dealers and customers wait for showrooms to fully reopen, it is still possible to buy a new or used car during lockdown.
During the first lockdown manufacturers and dealers put huge efforts into expanding their online sales platforms, allowing buyers to take advantage of the click-and-collect exemption to retail restrictions.
Most new and used car dealers now offer online descriptions of their stock, with plenty of images and all the relevant data. Many also now offer video “tours” of vehicles and a growing number of brands have product experts offering live streaming model guides for potential buyers.
Dealers are allowed to take orders and payments via the phone or internet, so if you spot a model you want you can still order and buy it without visiting the showroom.
Most have also been developing contactless handover processes, where either the car is delivered to your door or you can collect it from an outdoor location. Any dealer operating like this has to confirm that it is following the latest guidance on cleanliness and safety.
Some manufacturers have purpose-made online retail services where every aspect of choosing and buying a brand new car is handled online. And there are other web-based services offering end-to-end online buying of new and used models, including Heycar, Carwow, Buyacar and Cazoo.