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ALBANY — Spring, and the Memorial Day weekend in particular, traditionally have been some of the busiest times for auto sales. This year, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, April auto sales tumbled. But a number of factors have manufacturers and dealers feeling more optimistic.
Cars, it turns out, are an ideal way to maintain social distancing. Your personal vehicle will give you the six feet or more of space you need to separate yourself from other drivers, even in the worst traffic jam.
Gas prices, meanwhile are the lowest they’ve been in a number of years, thanks to a glut of oil.
Interest rates? Also near historic lows.
And to top it off, local auto dealers have been enhancing their websites and adding a wide range of services that make it more convenient for customers to shop for a vehicle.
On Thursday, Keeler Motor Car Company in Latham told customers it was once again able to offer showroom visits and test drives, both by appointment.
But even before that, Keeler was offering ways to purchase and arrange financing completely online, with the paperwork and vehicle delivered to the customer’s home.
And for service? The dealer will pick your car up at your home in the morning and return it later in the day.
Other car dealers are offering similar conveniences.
A Times Union special report about how the Capital Region will look as the coronavirus quarantine begins to lift. Full coronavirus coverage here.
Rensselaer Honda in Brunswick touts its own virtual showroom, with photos and details of their vehicles, plus a link to Kelley Blue Book to find out what your existing vehicle might be worth, and a Buy from Home tab that collects some basic information about you and your driving needs plus information about your trade-in.
When Mackey Auto Group purchased Saratoga Ford and Saratoga Subaru on Route 9 just south of Saratoga Springs last year, the new owners began updating their online presence.
“We were looking to the future and being cutting edge,” said General Manager Michael Crowley.
Customers could shop from home at 11 p.m., if they wanted, Crowley said. “The convenience factor is the key for everybody,” he added, and it kept not only customers safe but the dealership’s 50 employees as well.
They built up their inventory of vehicles, which was an advantage when Ford and Subaru assembly plants closed temporarily during the pandemic.
And they invested in an electrostatic cleaning machine to sanitize the vehicles. The machine sprays electrically charged disinfectant that clings to every nook and cranny. The machines are now widely used by airlines, health facilities and others.
Crowley said his customers have included parents looking for a second car their college student could take back to school in the fall, so that he won’t have to risk traveling by bus or train.
Long-term, public transit and travel by train or airline will face the challenge of making would-be customers feel safe. Already, China is seeing a sharp drop in public transport demand as people use their private cars, the Financial Times reported Thursday.
Closer to home, the Capital District Transportation Authority is developing a comprehensive plan it will roll out in coming weeks outlining it cleaning practices, in an effort to reassure passengers the buses are safe.
“It’s obviously a concern for us,” spokeswoman Jaime Watson said Friday. “People are, and rightfully so, skittish about returning to normal activities.”
CDTA is considering sanitization options ranging from the electrostatic sprayers and misters to ultraviolet lights that would kill viruses.
Ridership has been rebounding, she added. Last week CDTA carried nearly 30,000 passengers, three times what it carried at the height of the pandemic’s peak, and halfway to its normal passenger load of 60,000 customers weekly.
Those gains may be a good thing, easing the stress on aging infrastructure that any substantial shift to personal vehicles could cause.
And as employees have become accustomed to working at home, demand for office space, and the commute to reach it, may drop permanently.
Vacations, meanwhile, could become even more car-oriented, as families climb into their SUVs for trips to destinations like Lake George or Cape Cod. It’s a trend that may keep rail and airline operators awake at night.
Amtrak, however, said on Friday its newest Acela trains will includes all kinds of touch-free features, in coaches, at the snack bar, and in the bathrooms.
Car manufacturers, meanwhile, were already pursuing new technologies, from electric vehicles to self-driving vehicles both of which could make the family vehicle even more convenient.
And they’ve added all kinds of flexible payment options, according to J.D. Power, to stimulate car sales.
“These types of programs have been tools OEMs have used many times over in economic downturns and for inventory control,” said James Houston, J.D. Power Managing Director, Consumer Lending and Automotive Finance, in a release. “History shows us that automotive sales recover over time, and there will be less need to rely on these types of programs.”