ROBBINSVILLE, NJ – When New Jersey’s car showrooms reopened on May 19 following a two-month hiatus, auto vendors began innovating new ways to maximize profits and hygiene during the coronavirus pandemic.

By that point, dealerships in state had already slogged through a brutal April that saw sales move strictly online and plummet more than 70 percent according to the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers. While the return of in-person vehicle hunting could help relieve that burden, the industry must still negotiate mass concern over another outbreak and a tanking economy that has hindered revenues even further.

“We understand not everyone’s going to feel comfortable just yet,” Mike DeJesus, a sales representative at Route 130 Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Robbinsville, said. “It’s still new, still unknown territory, so we want to give everyone the right options.”

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DeJesus explained that the facility launched this January and saw business slow in early March before layoffs sidelined him and his fellow eight consultants just weeks later.

His colleagues are gradually returning to a very different workplace from the one they left when the lockdown started. Nobody can enter without a mask, management and clients interact in a lounge area, and transparent plastic barriers sit on desks to limit the spread of contagious droplets.

“Our test drives are also great because we sanitize the cars beforehand and afterwards, and [customers] go on by themselves,” DeJesus said. The fewer people involved and repeated rounds of cleaning lower the risk of transmitting germs between rides.

Despite digital car shopping gaining popularity in recent weeks, DeJesus said he thinks the showroom experience is still sustainable but added that Route 130 Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram will continue providing online alternatives after the pandemic subsides.

The increasing health precautions DeJesus outlined are also impacting the secondary auto market. John Hooks, general manager of Robbinsville-based Central Group, has adapted to COVID-19 without the infrastructure or personnel of major dealerships.

“I do everything from taking pictures, selling the vehicle, financing the car, and cleaning the toilet,” Hooks said. He explained that his staff of three relied on phone calls, emails, and photographs and videos of inventory to engage customers, delivering long-distance as far away as West Virginia.

Hooks described that his sales received a boost throughout the lockdown from more unique models and the desperation of drivers who suddenly lost their transportation and required immediate replacements. He emphasized the availability of disinfectant products at Central Group and the necessity of wearing facial coverings.

And to reduce overcrowding, Hooks has revamped his financing process as well.

“I won’t show the car until I know the person is qualified for it because it would just be a waste of having to risk that person and my [team’s] livelihood,” Hooks said. Now, he makes prospective buyers complete an application for credit pre-approval before they can examine his stock.

While Hooks was uncertain about whether electronic exchanges could be the future of used vehicles, he expressed confidence in his local clientele continuing to shop face-to-face. Like DeJesus, he believes people value the opportunity to build a relationship with their auto retailers.

“I don’t think that every dealer is going to…pump out cars with just online, remote sales,” Hooks said. “We’re not selling shoes here—we’re selling something that is usually the second or third largest purchase any person’s ever going to make, and people like to sit in it before they buy it.”

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