COVID-19 Update: One NY Dealer Says Business is Anything but Usual

By Desiree Homer

A New York dealer had a customer come into his showroom. She was wearing a mask at first, but then she removed it after a visit to the restroom. This elderly car buyer began coughing, and that’s when President and CEO of Sun Auto Group, Todd Caputo, realized just how terrified his employees were about the potential risks of viral spread. He took action to revamp his operations and remains open to appointment only customers. He even says he may not fully reopen his showrooms until there is a vaccine for COVID-19. How is he staying afloat, you ask? He’s transitioned his sales process to an entirely online experience. And it’s a business model he discussed with Automotive News, that is proving to be anything but usual and still driving profits and sales.

What Sun Auto Group Does to Make Online Work

Like most dealerships, Todd Caputo was forced to shutter his retail stores in March. He also furloughed more than 200 members of his staff in the process. Relying only on his online sales strategy, Sun Auto Group continued to manage new and used sales throughout the shutdown. About a year before the pandemic hit, Caputo partnered with Roadster, an auto e-commerce solution platform, to offer a digital car buying experience. That platform allowed him to sustain almost entirely throughout the economic shutdowns. He even managed to grow his base across state lines. In April, he sold 269 units and in May, 375. The entire process from appraisal to F&I is conducted online. And buyers are engaging, Caputo says in part to his use of vibrant images, transparency of available terms and documents, along with his one-price strategy. And he’s been able to sustain these levels of sales with less than half of his original workforce.

Data Says Digital Is Where Dealers Need to Be

Some surveys show that 88% of dealers have transitioned to focus on remote and digital buying options in the wake of COVID-19. For Sun Auto Group, only about 5% of transactions were entirely online before March. Today, 100% of the group’s used and new sales are finalized digitally. Shipping sold units before the pandemic for Todd Caputo was about 2%. Post-Coronavirus, his out of state sales have jumped to roughly 9%. Regardless of your region or local market demand, there could be an untapped, remote market available to those dealers ready to sell beyond the backyard. Managing online operations requires less manpower, too. This means in terms of overhead and efficiencies; dealers can leverage an e-commerce way of selling and cut costs simultaneously.

Tapping into Markets Beyond Your Physical Reach

In an interview discussion with Dave Cantin, former Bentley Motors COO, Mark Barnes, says, “car dealers are the last great entrepreneurs.” Sure, dealers are aware now that having an online presence is key to engaging customers in this new environment. But the success of Sun Auto Group indicates there are other benefits to remote options and plenty of room to reinvent new solutions. Think beyond the showroom and imagine tapping into markets beyond your physical reach. Digital and e-commerce style platforms may become the new normal for those looking to innovate.

Consider exploring your remote buying process and implementing a platform that allows you to extend your reach to new car buying customers. It’s a strategy that’s working for Todd Caputo and could be the way forward.