Published in Small Business
Crews at Sharpe Cars in Grand Rapids are taking extra measures to disinfect vehicles. Crews at Sharpe Cars in Grand Rapids are taking extra measures to disinfect vehicles. COURTESY PHOTO

Sharpe Cars makes shift to online vehicle sales

BY Sunday, May 10, 2020 06:36pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Coming off of strong sales in 2019, executives at Sharpe Cars had plans to reinvest capital into the company’s showrooms and facilities. 

Then came the outbreak of COVID-19, which upended those plans. 

“All of those projects have been wiped off the table right now,” said George Sharpe Jr., general manager of Sharpe Cars. “Now, we’re in kind of a crisis protection mode for the business just to sustain through this time. It’s the preservation of capital, not knowing how long this will go on for.” 

To protect staff and shoppers from the highly contagious virus, the showrooms at Sharpe Cars have been closed to the public since mid-March, repair and maintenance staff has transitioned to a split schedule and all sales efforts have been pushed online.

“If I could only timestamp it and look at the progression of my mindset throughout this time, it took a while to adapt to the severity of it,” Sharpe said. 

After a complete stop in sales in March, Sharpe Cars — which holds franchises for BMW, Land Rover, Jaguar and Mini — sold half the number of cars in April as it would have without the disruption from the pandemic and efforts to mitigate the outbreak.

“We had the functionality (online) before, but COVID has forced our behaviors as a dealership to change,” Sharpe said. “By no means was it normal, but I’m pleased we went from where we were, from zero sales for two to three weeks, to some sales, to now we’re up to, in a month’s time, close to half the business and sales. I’m grateful for that.” 

The 50 percent year-over-year drop in sales at Sharpe Cars aligns with industry-wide vehicle sales forecasts. Complete sales results for the month of April will not be publicly released until the second quarter concludes in June, but car shopping experts at Edmunds estimate 633,260 new cars and trucks were sold last month. That’s a 52.5-percent decrease from April 2019 and a 36.6-percent drop from March 2020.

At the four Sharpe Cars stores, more buyers than Sharpe expected are following through on pre-orders, which automakers have still been able to supply despite global manufacturing shutdowns and disruptions. 

“At the early onset of this, I anticipated more people backing out, but there was just a couple,” Sharpe said. “A lot of people still continue to take delivery of what they were planning.” 

Into the summer and perhaps for the rest of 2020, Sharpe expects online transactions to continue to carve out a larger share of total auto sales, even though the platform has its limitations. 

“There is still a human interaction that takes place. It begins online, but you can’t click a button and pay for it,” Sharpe said, adding that some documents need to go “back and forth” and the state requires a “wet signature” on a few critical vehicle sales agreements. For now, the sales staff at Sharpe Cars is collecting those signatures upon delivery to customers’ homes or designated delivery locations. 

“Until the vaccine is found, we’re going to be operating in these safe environments for some time,” Sharpe said. “I think it’s a matter of figuring out how to conduct business in any industry in a safe way to keep the economy going and keep people working to be able to increase their spending and consumer confidence.”

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