"We still sanitize every car that comes into the shop," says Mark Williamson, service director at Love Chevrolet in Columbia, S.C. "It's just become the new normal."
Williamson says that while some customers were casual about the potential dangers of the pandemic and others became more willing to visit the shop post-vaccination, many still have plenty of anxiety about indoor spaces.
"Most people are somewhere in the middle, and they like the reassurance that everything is sanitized," he says.
Also, customers have become used to it. "We've been at this for a year now, and after customers have seen you do it, it becomes more of an expectation," Williamson says.
Lee Harkins, CEO of M5 Management Services, a fixed ops consulting company, says Williamson's experience is common at most dealerships nationwide. He says continuing to sanitize is both a necessity and an opportunity for service departments.
"The strongest positive of sanitizing is doing it with the customer standing there," Harkins says. "It speaks volumes to the level of service and the detail work that you provide to them."
But once customers are used to that service, as in Williamson's example, they expect it.
"It's like adding a free car wash," Harkins says. "If you get used to having them, the first time you don't get one, you feel slighted."
At Scott Clark Auto Group in the Charlotte, N.C., area, Service Director David Blackburn says about 70 percent of customers — down from a pandemic high of about 95 percent — approve the complimentary sanitizing.
"Customers just feel more comfortable knowing their vehicle has been sanitized," he says. "But we don't just do it; we ask first."
Blackburn and Williamson agree it's a small investment to demonstrate that they value their customers.
Williamson says it probably costs about $600 a month, excluding labor time, to sanitize both the building and vehicles. In addition to customers, Williamson also has his employees in mind — especially those who work on the cars — when sanitizing vehicles.
"Technicians are too hard to come by," he says. "I want to keep all of them healthy, working and happy — and not taking anything home to their families."
Lisa Chang, CEO of GTech — which supplies about 200 dealerships with sanitizing disinfectants — says she has not seen a noticeable drop-off in demand from those clients. The company, based in Northern California and founded in 2015, also supplies health care facilities, hotels, casinos, college campuses and professional sports franchises.
"Dealerships are a new business for us," Chang says. "We did some demos [at dealerships], and that business really took off. I'd say 95 percent [of dealerships] are still going as strong" with GTech products as they were during the pandemic.
Some GTech products are even sold in dealership parts departments, Chang says. Dealerships like the products because they are nontoxic and environmentally friendly, dry quickly without any residue and won't damage leather car interiors, she says.
Jason Yates, fixed ops director for Hudson Auto Group, says its 26 dealerships are still following coronavirus protocols and offering sanitizing. "Customers are starting to not care as much about sanitizing as before, but we're still doing it," he says.
Sanitizing is complimentary at all of the group's stores and is done in front of customers when they pick up their vehicles.
"They really appreciate it," Yates says. "And it says to them their safety is our first priority."
Harkins says sanitizing vehicles addresses the concerns of those who are still nervous about the virus but reluctant to say anything.
"Just because more people are coming in without masks these days" doesn't mean service departments should stop the practice, Harkins says. "It still sends a message that your shop is looking out for them."