Visitors to Roberts Toyota in Columbia, Tenn., this month, might have thought 2014 Camrys were flying off the lot. About half of the 15 Camrys in inventory had "SOLD" signs on them.
But they were not sold, at least not yet. The Camrys were a small fraction of the 10,000 cars that Toyota voluntarily recalled this month because of a malfunctioning wiper switch assembly. Affected vehicles were the 2013 and 2014 Toyota Avalon, Avalon Hybrid, Camry, Camry Hybrid and 2014 Corolla sedans.
"We felt that for individuals walking in it'd be better to see a sold tag on a car than have the car pulled off the lot out back, and then your inventory looks depleted," Roberts Toyota Sales Manager Robbie Payne says. "So we turned it into a positive because people will come in and [think] we're selling cars and things are looking good, things are moving."
Although the Camrys at Roberts Toyota were fixed within a few days, even small recalls can affect a dealership's business -- taking service staffers from other duties.
But recalls provide opportunities for dealerships to bring customers into the service department, build customer loyalty and encourage maintenance business, says Darryl Diffee, general manager of Haley Toyota in Richmond, Va.
"If you get people coming into your dealership and they feel comfortable coming here, then they will want to use our service department for other things," Diffee says.
For dealerships, a vehicle recall starts with an e-mail or a letter sent by certified mail from an automaker.
"You hear a lot of things in the news, but you learn over the years that until you actually get something in writing or something legitimate, rumors are just rumors sometimes," Diffee says.
That was especially evident in 2009 and 2010 when Toyota recalled millions of vehicles for possible unintended-acceleration problems including loose floor mats and sticky gas pedals, says Johnny Prince, Haley Toyota's service director. He says the service department was swamped with calls from concerned drivers who were worried that their vehicles might be affected.
"It was what I like to call mass hysteria," Prince says.
Once a recall is confirmed, it is critical for the manufacturer and the dealer to resolve it quickly so customers are confident that their vehicles are safe, Diffee says.
As Toyota gears up for a recall, it will ensure that its dealers have enough parts to service affected vehicles, Prince says, noting that parts shortages do occur, albeit rarely.
Although automakers notify affected customers, media coverage of recalls affects how many drivers take their vehicles in for service, Diffee says. The largest influx of customers Haley Toyota has had for recalls occurred during the 2009-10 service actions related to unintended acceleration, he says.
"A lot of that was in the news, and a lot of people were worried about it," Diffee says. "I think the consumer paid more attention to that recall than any of them."
Haley technicians often worked past midnight to deal with the crush of vehicles brought to the dealership for service because of the recalls. Since then, though, Toyota has tried to send recall notices to customers in stages so dealerships don't get swamped, Prince says.
Payne says it can be difficult to keep track of specific makes and models affected by recalls. As a result, Roberts Toyota directs customers with questions to the service department, where employees closely track which vehicles are being recalled.
"That's our philosophy," Payne says. "Let's turn it over to the people who know because a lot of times we don't know what that specific is, either."