Coronavirus: The view from the workshop

Outside at A1 Autos

Published:  07 May, 2020

Garages across the UK are having to consider how to approach Covis-19 as the situation unfolds

There’s never been anything quite like it. Even two months ago, the Coronavirus outbreak seemed a distant concern to many people. Now it is changing the social and economic landscape of the country. The impact can be felt everywhere, from 10 Downing Street, all the way to your garage. Businesses everywhere are chipping in with the national effort, and taking stock too. 

Last issue we looked at how North Yorkshire’s Pure Car Mechanics had, prior to the Coronavirus lockdown taking place, already instituted measures to support customers who self-isolating or were otherwise affected  by the burgeoning crisis. 

Co-owner Angel Snowden  told us: “Supporting the community is what we are always doing, and other garages should definitely think about promoting these sorts of services if they are able to offer them. We are only doing what other local businesses in other sectors are doing. We are saying ‘yes we are here, and we can help out, if needed’.”

Pure Car Mechanics were quick off the mark in noting the change in circumstances, but they weren’t alone. Businesses across the UK have been looking at their options, and whether staying open to support key workers is the right course, or if closing for a short period might be the way to go.

Busy

Ben Thompson is the owner of A1 Autocentre in Basildon. At the start of the UK partial lockdown at the end of March, MOTs were still running normally, as the deferment option had not yet been made available. As a result it was very busy at A1:

“We are probably one of the biggest MOT garages in the country,” said Ben, “at least down south. We normally do between 40 and 50 MOTs most days. We do pretty much everything. We do servicing, we do mechanical work, tyres, alignment, stuff like that. We have 16 staff .  At the moment we have three drivers who are going around picking up cars for people who need MOTs, servicing  or anything done repair-wise. Our drivers pick the car up from the customer, bring it to the garage, we do the MOT or service or repair, take the payment over the phone, then we drop it back to them.

“We are still open, and unless the government says otherwise we are going to remain open, and try to keep going. Right now, everyone is parking out the front. We are going out, taking the keys out, putting them in a bag and taking them into the workshop. We are then doing the work, taking the car back out and leaving it at the front. Afterwards we take the payment over the phone.”

Social distancing was definitely underway here?

“Exactly,” said Ben. “We have locked up the office, and no one is allowed in the waiting room. Nobody is allowed in the garage at all. We are allowing people to come in to pay for their MOTs, but that is one person at a time. Paying with the machine is different to dealing with our receptionist. They come in, make the payment, the MOT is already placed in the car with the keys, and they just go in their car.”

We wondered how the staff felt about all of this: “Obviously some of my staff have been a little bit worried and did not want to come in, while others are of the opinion that they would rather be at work than at home. We are giving them the option, so they can either stay away or come in.

“A couple of our guys who are a bit older, we told them to stay off until it is safer. All the others who want to come in and are happy to come in, we can carry on.”

Workshop

layout The geography of the workshop plays its part here: “We have five or six workshop ramps that are quite far apart, so nobody is allowed to go near each other. We also have staggered lunches, staggered smoking breaks. Everyone is working on the basis of keeping apart, and let’s have as little contact as possible.

“At the moment we are staying open, as long as we are allowed to. We will continue to pick up cars as long as people need them picked up, especially people who have kids stuck at home, or older people, and we will continue to do that as long as the government will allow us.”

What about the customers? Was A1 increasing its online promotion to tell what they are doing?

“Yes,” confirmed Ben. “On our Facebook page, there is quite a lot going up at the moment. I have paid for a promoted post on Facebook, and in a very short space of time we already 170 people have like it. It has also had about 40 shares as well. A few people have called, saying ‘I have seen the post, are you still open?’ We are obviously saying yes. We are getting calls from customers. We will put more on.  We are saying if there is any threat of illness please let us know, otherwise come in yourselves.

“We are seeing loads of new customers. We have got pretty much record numbers every day. Someone rang the other day and said ‘oh please say you are open! I’ve called five or six garages and they are all closed’. We are definitely receiving a lot more people as a result of the situation. On average now we are doing 55 MOTs every day, which is more than usual! It is not getting quieter – it is getting busier!”

That is the situation in Essex. Let’s look elsewhere to see how the situation is affecting things.

Essential

Hayley Pells is famously owner of Avia Autos in Bridgend in South Wales. The business normally covers a range of services, from conventional servicing and repairs, all the way through to maintaining racing cars, and even producing car bodies for inter-war vintage vehicles. With the imposition of the Coronavirus measures, a rethink and refocus was required.

“Following the Prime Minister’s speech on 23 March, “ said Hayley, “ we have been opening under restricted hours, offering MOTs and essential repair only. Following the initial DVSA guidance that all motorists undertaking essential travel did have to have a valid MOT certificate, we felt it was important.”

Subsequently, MOTs were deferred for six months from 30 March, but could still be performed if possible and the driver required.

Even with this in place, MOTs will still be required, and essential workers will need to be kept on the road. Hayley found it was taking time for the customers to get the idea of essential repairs:  “I have been quite surprised, in that I have had to turn away what could be regarded as more frivolous services that we do offer, that we are specialists in, particularly with racing cars, track cars, that kind of thing.

“We are not undertaking any of that work at this time, so we can focus on the needs of essential travel. I’d like to focus on the use of the word ‘essential’. We are not opening for key workers only. We are opening for essential travel. That does include a key worker going to their place of work. It also include the person in self-isolation who is perhaps pregnant or perhaps undertaking dialysis or chemotherapy, and they have an essential need to leave their homes regularly. So, essential travel is something that we really need to examine, and use responsibly. It’s not just a key worker thing.”

We wondered if it was just regulars who were using the service, or if other garages – and franchised dealers – closing had led new customers to make their way to Avia Autos. “We are mostly seeing our regular customers,” she replied.

Demographics

With the risk from Covid-19 rising as a person ages, Hayley was also conscious of an organisational shortcoming our sector might have in this situation as a result for the need for social distancing, and in some cases full isolation:  “I am not sure of the specific stat, but  anecdotally I believe that a third of those working in our sector are over the age of 50. Essentially we have what would regarded as an older workforce. Because of the ages of those involved, a high number of people who are in our sector may be unable to offer the service they normally do, because of the risk to their demographic.”

This is an issue across the board:  “We are seeing garages closing for variety of reasons. We have had referrals from other independent businesses in order to help support their clients for essential MOT and repair.

[sh] Finances With traffic levels around 80% down according to some estimates as a result of Britain’s partial lockdown, is doing the public-spirited thing and staying open actually going to be cost-effective over the coming weeks and months?

“I have no idea if it is going to keep the lights on if I am honest,” observed Hayley, but that is something where I am going to rely heavily on the advice and support from our government to address. I run a transparent business. If I need to access support, I hope that will be there for me. I feel it is a little bit pointless trying to access that support right now, because I don’t need it right now. Right now, my skills are needed to keep cars on the road.”

 Marketing

We asked how customers are finding out Avia Autos is still open? Was Hayley actively marketing the fact that the business is open?  Have she changed thee marketing message?

“We have changed our marketing strategy,” she confirmed.  “We are not encouraging travel to our workshop though. We are placing notices of our opening hours and the services that we offer on our social media platforms. We have also updated our Google Business listing. We are not doing any special marketing to encourage footfall.  I don’t think that is a model that would work for us. I also don’t think it would help the current situation.”

That seems like a difficult balance to strike:  “We are not actively discouraging people. We are trying to be transparent around what the law is, and what people require. Some things are very easy. You need your brakes done? We will fix your brakes.  That is a really nice and simple one.”

Essential

Does it get complicated then? “It is more difficult to make that call when someone says they have a need for something, such as ‘I need air conditioning’. Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t. It is not up to me to determine somebody’s medical need as to whether they have a requirement for air conditioning or not. However, I have chosen as a business not to support that as a service.”

What about work that could be seen as extraneous, but actually has a safety impact: “We are alignment specialists. We also do a lot of corner weighting, and alignment for specialist track cars. I found this one a lot more difficult to analyse. On balance, we have opted to drop corner weighting as a service.

“However, with alignment I think this is still an essential service to keep people safe on the road. As a result, we are providing alignment services for normal cars, especially if they are in for MOT or essential repair anyway. It is not something we will do unless the customer says ‘I have just hit a whopping great pot-hole, and every time I try to drive my car is veering off to the left’. At that point it is out of alignment territory and into the realm of repair if I am honest.

We wondered what Hayley would do if it veered into ADAS territory:  “I don’t know and thankfully I don’t have provision for ADAS yet. I don’t have to answer that question, and at the moment I am quite pleased about that.”

Practical

It continues to be a highly fluid situation for businesses. Garages have to assess where it is practical to stay open, and where they will need to consider closing. In a classic example of this, after we spoke to Hayley, she took the decision to close the doors at Avia Autos for the duration. Many of Aftermarket’s readers will be looking at their options, and having to make similar choices. Whether you stay open or shut up shop has to be the right decision for your customers, your staff and for you.

Avia Autos’ customer Mr Doyle, waiting at a safe distance for his Mazda

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