Automakers offer no-interest loans, deferred payments as dealerships struggle

Breana Noble Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sales have fallen from 20 vehicles per day to five over the past week at Paragon Honda and Acura dealerships in New York City.

And now their general manager worries it could fall to zero with orders from the state of New York shutting down non-essential businesses, including his sales operations, amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Automakers are offering big incentives as dealerships worry about the coronavirus outbreak.

"It's a disaster," said Brian Benstock, vice president of the dealerships. "There's no other way to put it."

Auto dealers across the United States like Benstock are bracing for what the outbreak has in store for their dealerships as the government expands measures to reduce the spread of the virus, foreign and domestic automakers for which they sell halt production at their plants, and customers stay home.

And while automakers have announced new incentives with deferred payments and interest to get people through dealer doors, some retailers just are hoping to survive the downturn — especially if they are forced by the government to close.

"Not everyone is going to make it through this one," United Auto Workers Local 259 President Brian Schneck has come to realize. He represents 1,400 members who work in the parts and service departments at 75 dealerships in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. 

Schneck has been fighting to keep his members employed while New York, which has the most coronavirus cases in the U.S., goes on lockdown. He had to work with the dealerships to figure out how to reduce staffing to 50%, then that dropped to 25% — and then his members found out their work wasn't considered essential enough to stay open. That changed late Thursday when the state classified fixed operations as "essential."

"It’s very tough and very taxing," Schneck said. "I made it through 9/11 and the economic recession. This has been so different and really damaging."

 He expects to see about a 25% layoff across the local.

"It’s just head-spinning," Schneck said. "I just can’t believe what's happening. We can’t control it. Our members are nervous; they are sad. They need their jobs and their money."

Many dealerships say their service departments have received steady business or are slightly down. General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles are shutting manufacturing plants but have come to an agreement with the UAW to keep their parts-warehousing facilities that support dealerships open with paid voluntary shifts.

"GM and the UAW have reached an agreement that will allow us to continue delivering service and repair parts to our dealers and customers, including the police agencies, fire departments and emergency service providers who rely on our vehicles all over country," the company said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, online traffic to dealerships is brisk, but sales have fallen 20%, 50% or more over the past week. At Greenwood Chevrolet in northeast Ohio, service revenues are down a third and sales have halved from what they typically are, owner Greg Greenwood said. Many customers are there because they need a cheaper used car to travel because of reductions in public transit.

"These are required purchases," Greenwood said. "When they come in to buy now they need a vehicle. They don’t have a choice."

To get people into showrooms, GM launched incentives similar to the Keep America Rolling campaign after the 9/11 attacks: 7-year no-interest loans, with deferred payments up to 120 days. Home-delivery is available.

Fiat Chrysler is offering similar incentives to GM's with 0% interest on 7-year loans on certain Jeep, Dodge and Ram models, and up to 90 days of deferred payments through the end of March.

Ford is offering six months of payment relief for customers for eligible new-car customers who finance through Ford Credit. Dealers also can receive payments for delivering vehicles instead of having them come to dealerships in March and April.

Other automakers have lessened dealer burdens by reducing monthly target for dealers, offering cash incentives and relaxing terms of dealer loans.

"It seems to me like a lot of the programs are about the uncertainty about people's employment," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at auto information website Inc. "Am I going to be able to make a payment on time? It's not the traditional $10,000 off. It does feel like the incentives are going to be around the understanding of rough economics times for a few months in terms of payments and whatnot."

And while dealers say the new incentives have not attracted buyers to their stores yet, they do make a difference: "When we tell them, you can almost see a sense of relief," said Tim Hovik, owner of San Tan Ford near Phoenix, Arizona, and vice chairman of Ford's national dealer council. "It's the peace of mind to making a good purchase and a good buying decision."

But for dealers like Benstock, who must rely on vehicle deliveries to sell cars as their cities shut down, assistance with fix costs as they manage millions of dollars in inventory without moving much and with staff pay would be helpful.

"I completely get it, closing things down, but what do we do to keep business in place?" he said. "I think we're all in this together — all of us. That's the solution."