Rebuilding America: Local car dealerships eager to ramp up sales upon fully reopening

Matt Hollinshead,

FARMINGTON — Vehicles sit in dealership lots untouched, waiting for new owners to drive them off into the sunset.

They kept sitting and sitting, and sitting some more. There was less activity, as the COVID-19 pandemic gave buyers some pause, and left sellers worried.

Just like the number of prospective customers, profits decreased.

Dealerships like Horace Nissan in Farmington soon accumulated inventory, stretching out to a dirt lot behind the building. Horace Nissan is one of many San Juan County dealerships that are hurting, but there's hope entering June.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham plans to ease more state restrictions starting on June 1, and local dealerships are ready to ramp up sales upon getting the OK to expand operations.

“It’s been one wild ride, between the fear in the public and the shutdown from the governor. At one point, they took my sales down to zero,” said Clifton Horace, owner of Horace Nissan and a Four Corners Economic Development board member. “The automobile is the second biggest purchase of your life. There’s a myriad of things that have to happen."

Profits down, but slowly improving amid reopening

Horace said his sales decreased by 75 percent in April and 50 percent in May. Horace also said his dealership's service department business dropped 65 percent, but only showed a shortfall somewhere between 10 and 15 percent in May.

Mike Ziems, the Sales and Marketing Manager at Ziems Ford Corners, said sales from the last week and a half of March and all of April were less than 50 percent, but are projected to hit close to 60 percent for May.

"I think it’s a ripple effect across the community,” Ziems said. “We’re trying to play catch up.”

Ziems said he envisions a dramatic increase in vehicle sales once the state fully opens back up.

Horace, who has roughly $9 million in car inventory, said he used payroll protection program money to re-hire furloughed workers to keep up with demands.

GMC sport utility vehicles sit out front on Thursday, May 21, 2020, at Hi Country Buick GMC in Farmington. Car dealerships across San Juan County look to expand car sales and services as New Mexico gradually reopens in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking precautions

Dealerships have predominantly conducted online sales, and workers are required to wear personal protective equipment such as face shields or masks when interacting with customers.

“One thing that slows down sales is fear. The fear has to abate in the general public,” Horace said.

Ziems said 90 to 95 percent of Ziems Ford Corners' latest sales were done via express checkout deals online. 

“Had we not had that, things would be much worse,” Ziems said.

Ziems also said Ziems Ford Corners will go to customers' houses to pick up vehicles for standard services like oil changes and tire changes.

At Horace Nissan, cars are sterilized twice before customers come in, seats are cleaned twice, invoices are laid out, and keys are dropped off in baggies for workers. Credit cards are cleared through credit card machines.

“It’s pretty slick. It actually makes some pretty smooth transition in the morning,” Horace said. “We’ve wiped down all the touch points."

Horace also said if customers don't have a face mask, they'd be provided one upon request.

Horace said his dealership is already a “master” at pre-scheduling appointments, so he he doesn't have to predetermine daily customer limits.

“I think we’re way ahead of the curve, convenience-wise,” Horace said.

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'I'm very motivated'

Dealerships are anxiously waiting for the green light to expand operations.

Once San Juan County enters the first phase of reopening, Horace said he can demonstrate vehicles and have face-to-face interactions to explain the complexities of vehicles.

For the local dealerships, it's more than a business. It's their livelihood.

Ziems Ford Corners opened in 1961, while Horace Nissan has been open since 1987.

“We’re lucky to have a such tight-knit community that supports us," said Ziems, a third-generation salesman in his family business. "You worry about continuing that legacy.”

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577 and on Twitter at @MattH_717.

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