This story first appeared in the April/May issue of CARS magazine. To access the digital magazine, click here.
Three Canadian shop owners offer insight on launching a pick-up/drop-off service amidst a global pandemic
With COVID-19 still keeping the majority of Canadians at home, automotive shop owners across the country have been coming up with creative ways to reinvent their business models in order to stay afloat.
Audrey Gottlieb, Audrey’s Auto Repair, Chris Dekker, My Garage Auto & Tire, and Mike Bealer, Caliber Automotive, are three Canadian shop owners who started a vehicle pick-up and delivery service for their customers at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdown restrictions began being implemented across the country.
“At that point, the roads around here were almost totally devoid of vehicles, and everyone in our industry saw a steep drop in business,” said Dekker. “Many of our competitors laid off most of their staff, but we kept everyone employed and worked hard to find creative ways to bring in as much business as possible.”
Gottlieb says Audrey’s Auto Repair started offering valet service specifically for the pandemic but plans to continue it once restrictions ease up after seeing a spike in demand. “We’ve been getting a few people that are using this service. It’s been mostly the immune compromised. However, some people that work from home are taking advantage of not having to leave their home,” Gottlieb said. “And hey, if you don’t have to put your pants on for a Zoom meeting, why have to put them on to drive your car to the shop?”
For Bealer, offering a pick-up drop-off service was something that Caliber Automotive always offered, but after determining that the best model of business was to reduce customer stress, he decided that the valet service would continue throughout the pandemic. “Recently, we have taken it a step forward with the option to pick up and deliver our customers vehicles,” Bealer explained.
From left to right: Mike Bealer, Audrey Gottlieb, and Chris Dekker.
How does the valet service work?
Much like any kind of chauffer or valet service, the pick-up and drop-off service should be customer centric. “Typically, it would start with the customer booking an appointment and indicating they would like a ride home or to the office. The customer would drop off their vehicle at their appointment time and we would then drive them where they need to go,” Bealer explained. “Once the vehicle is completed, we will then return to where we dropped them off and return them to the shop.” Bealer notes that Caliber Automotive’s vehicle pick-up and delivery service has been particularly popular for clients concerned about exposure to COVID-19.
The idea is much the same at Audrey’s Auto Repair, where two staff members pick up the vehicle and disinfect all high touch points, drive it to the shop, complete vehicle maintenance and repairs, re-disinfect the vehicle, and drive the vehicle back to the customer. “We do this with all the vehicles at the shop, whether it’s a customer that dropped their vehicle off or one that we picked up and dropped off,” Gottlieb said. “The customers who have used our valet service have been really grateful that it was available to them.”
“Clients have been very appreciative of the option,” added Dekker. “Right now, many people are working from home, or unable to leave their house due to health orders or looking after children who are home schooling. These people would have a tough time dropping their vehicle off to us.”
Should you charge for the service?
While a valet service is a value-added solution for customers during COVID-19, it’s also a potential revenue stream. All three shop owners agree that there should be a cost associated with vehicle pick-up and drop-off, much like any other service.
“Right now, we’re doing the vehicle pick-up service as a complimentary service during COVID-19, but we plan to charge for the service soon,” Dekker said. “Earlier this year we surveyed clients through our social media channels, asking if they would be willing to pay a $15 or $20 fee in exchange for having their vehicle picked up and dropped off. The overwhelming majority said yes.”
At Caliber Automotive, Bealer says that the customer valet service is included in the pricing, but the vehicle delivery service is an added fee, roughly $20 each way.
“Our valet service is free of charge for anyone until the pandemic is over. There will likely be a charge of $39.95 after that,” Gottlieb added. “There are probably some shops out there that would be reluctant to offer a valet service, as there is a higher cost and time consumption (we need to send two people away from the shop at a scheduled time). I think of it this way: can you afford not to? Times are changing and people’s needs are changing, so we need to adapt wherever possible. When we don’t, it opens up to the possibility that customers are going to go elsewhere to get their needs met.”
According to Bealer, rather than viewing additional services as an added cost to their clients, small business owners need to see the service for what it actually is: an added value proposition. “If offering a valet service sets you apart from your neighbor, the customer will choose the company with the higher perceived value,” Bealer said.
“If you have enough staff to offer this type of service, do it! Once we start to charge for the service, we will likely hire a minimum wage employee to help with shuttling vehicles back and forth,” Dekker added. “However, don’t make the mistake of using technicians to give clients a ride home or pick up a vehicle. In our shop, every 20 minutes a technician spends away from their bay costs us $106 in lost revenue (including parts sales). Your numbers are likely very similar.”
Tips for starting your own valet service
Consider purchasing an older, used vehicle and get it detailed—this can be the designated pick-up/drop-off vehicle, so you don’t have to regularly sanitize your own vehicle.
Designate one staff member to be the valet driver for added consistency, rather than having one staff member doing the pick-up and one doing the drop-off.
Offer flexible service hours to meet the needs of your clients and consider creating an online booking system to better track appointments and make it easier for clients.
Advertise the disinfection products used on the vehicle, as well as the overall sanitization process for added peace of mind.
Be transparent with your customers: let them know that wait times may be longer than usual with this new service to allow for flexibility in the delivery schedule.