Auto repair shops across the country remain open, but a snap poll of jobbers across the country suggests fears of a complete shutdown are close to the surface.
An already quiet March Break week has gotten uncomfortably quiet for most repair shops, leading to slower sales across the board.
And while no one is pushing the ‘panic’ button just yet, everyone is clearly on edge with coronavirus restrictions increasingly hindering business operations.
“You can tell that everything is changing,” said Michel Breau, parts manager at Carquest Naguac on the east coastline of New Brunswick. “So far nobody’s sick, the shops are open, and let’s hope it stays that way. But it feels like the economy is starting to choke.”
His parts operation has an adjoining repair shop where work is still on the go for now. The retail side of the business, however, has gone quiet.
“We have no plans to close but we’ll see what happens,” he said.
David MacRae, owner of MacRae & Sons in Baddeck, Cape Breton, about 45 minutes from Sydney, N.S. is in a similar situation. He also sells parts and has an attached garage and gas pumps.
“It’s pretty darn quiet, I’ll tell you. This is the March Break week and typically that will be the quietest week we have in the whole year. We’re quiet because of that, and now a little more quiet because of the virus deal,” he said.
Some local retail businesses have closed and people are staying home. He doesn’t anticipate having to close because his gas pumps are important to the community, but on the repair side he may not be able to keep his techs busy enough.
“There might be an issue with that if things don’t improve. Usually after March Break things come back to normal and then we roll into spring and things get busy,” he said. “With all that’s going on, people’s minds are not on getting their car repaired right now. They’re just not thinking about that.”
On the upside, he has not had any problems getting parts from his supplier yet.
Brian Sokolowicz, a Bumper to Bumper jobber in Chelmsford, Ont. just outside of greater Sudbury, said inventory is still good in his neck of the woods, and he’s had no problems getting shipments from the warehouse.
“Things are still going smoothly,” he said. “Everything is still pretty normal. People are not too worried. There’s not a huge local tension about the coronavirus situation. We’re taking precautions, but we’re not living in fear of it.”
Even still, he knows of at least one local repair shop that has started talking about cutting back hours. On Monday morning, all that came through the door at that shop was two oil changes.
“March Break is quiet to begin with, but this year people are really just staying home with their kids,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of people hurting by the end of the year.”
Felix Bouchard, a business development specialist for Autopro in the province of Quebec, says increasing self-isolation actually brings some opportunities for repair shops. He is encouraging the shop owners he speaks with to offer customers a pick-up and drop-off service.
“Take advantage of the slowdown to accelerate the tire season,” he said. “It is always a rush in the spring. That’s a very difficult thing to manage. This year, we can call people and offer to go get their car for them, change the tires, sanitize the interior, clean the car, and drop it off again. They don’t have to leave their house.”
He said it is still a little early for tire changes in his area, but as long as the sun is shining, people are starting to think about spring.
“Another opportunity is the digital inspections,” he said. “This is a great time to embrace this new tool. The customers don’t want to come into the shop right now. You can send pictures, videos, texts, and links to them remotely. They don’t have to come in at all. We can make it very easy for them to see what is wrong with their car. If they answer yes, we do the rest.”
He said he hasn’t heard of anyone in the local aftermarket getting sick yet. “And I hope I won’t!” he added.
Brett Stewart, of NAPA Winnipeg, said some local repair shops are taking steps to reduce interaction with parts drivers in an effort to stay virus-free.
“A lot of shops have lockboxes outside for overnight deliveries,” he said. “Some have requested that we drop off parts using those lockboxes, even during the day, to minimize human contact.”
NAPA sales staff have been pulled from the road in his area until further notice, and work is now being done by text, email, and video chat.
“Extra inventory has been ordered. We’re bulking up in case it gets difficult to get parts, but we haven’t seen any disruptions yet,” he said. “Everything is happening so fast it is difficult to make long-range plans. We’re just making decisions as we go.”
Pascal Radano, a Bumper to Bumper manager in Vancouver, says his customers are holding up well.
“There’s definitely a slow-down, but nobody’s too panicked,” he said. “Orders are still coming through. We’re doing all right.”
He believes smaller communities might suffer more than bigger centers because they have few alternatives when there are supply-chain issues.
Conversely, people in smaller towns figure things are probably tougher in dense populations.
One thing is clear, the situation is evolving rapidly, and anyone who says they know how it will all play out may be in for a surprise.