So early in the pandemic, Wright decided to keep all employees working and guarantee their pay while he continued to try to hire. Those choices carried his work force through the pandemic. They also helped during an April hailstorm that shut down the sales department for close to three weeks and an August derecho — a series of intense windstorms — that left his dealership without power for nine days.
Sales reps, service technicians and service advisers were guaranteed to make at least as much money as they did on average last year, Wright said. Hourly employees, including administrative and support roles, saw their pay increase by 20 percent as Wright raised base wages by the same in a bid to make his dealership more attractive in his local market. Those changes will stay in place through 2020, he said.
The Paycheck Protection Program helped offset the cost, though Wright said he had planned to make the compensation changes before the loan program was announced.
"We have a lot of great employees here, and I definitely can't do this by myself, so I need to keep them," he said. "I needed to take care of my own people first and keep them employed regardless, before I added anybody new."
Hireology's Robinson said he heard less about dealerships guaranteeing pay during the summer months as vehicle demand recovered and sales productivity increased.
Some dealers with variable pay plans discovered they could sell more cars with fewer employees, and that individual sales reps also could sell more cars each than before the pandemic, Robinson said.
Arens, for instance, said his average compensation per employee has increased, but his group's total compensation expenses have not. His work force shrank slightly as some employees left and as Arens redeployed other workers into different roles to operate more efficiently.
An Automotive News survey of the Best Dealerships To Work For winners made clear that efficiency gains were widespread. Nearly 9 of 10 dealerships answering a question about the topic said sales staff productivity had improved during the pandemic.
Said Robinson: "Instead of making $500 a vehicle, they can make $800 a vehicle, and the person actually sells more cars and makes more money. Dealers have found out how to operate with fewer heads per unit so they make more money, the employee makes more money on the car they sell and everybody's happier."
Melissa Burden contributed to this report.