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Pandemic Forces Car Dealers to Do the Unthinkable: Sell Online

After more than a decade of getting around New York City almost exclusively by subway and bus, Nicole Avallone decided to buy a car in April after watching the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

But with dealerships closed in the New York area, Ms. Avallone did something few car buyers are able or willing to do: buy a car online. Over the course of several phone calls, text messages and Zoom meetings with a sales representative at Paragon Honda in Queens, she found a low-mileage, dark-purple Honda HRV that the dealership delivered to her door in Brooklyn.

“We did a lot of the paper work online, and we didn’t have to spend hours in the dealership,” said Ms. Avallone, a psychotherapist. “I had a million questions, but it was a lot easier than I thought.”

E-commerce has been embraced for all manner of goods and services — books, travel, groceries, electronics — but auto sales have resisted the trend. While consumers typically use the internet to browse and arm themselves with information, they have gone to dealers for most transactions.

With the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders, that is changing.

“Dealers are discovering they can sell cars online,” said Alan Haig, president of Haig Partners, an automotive retail consultant. “They are learning how to interact with customers outside the showroom.”

In reporting its first-quarter earnings, General Motors said 750 of its dealers had signed up for its “Shop Click Drive” e-commerce system since the outbreak began. More than 85 percent of its dealers in the United States now use it, said G.M.’s chief executive, Mary T. Barra.

AutoNation, a chain of more than 325 dealerships, also reported a jump in online-only sales in March and April.

The company’s chief executive, Mike Jackson, said he believed online sales would continue increasing even as stay-at-home restrictions were eased. “This is what the industry has needed to do for a long time,” he said. “This is an inflection point, a strategic shift, and it’s not going back.”

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Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times
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Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Paragon Honda sold about 70 vehicles a month online before infections started to surge in March, a small fraction of its typical monthly total of about 1,300. But when officials in New York ordered people to stay home, the dealership had a dozen or so of its sales representatives switch to online sales.

In April, the dealership sold 378 cars online, and the total for May is expected to exceed 500, said Brian Benstock, Paragon’s general manager. “We didn’t think we’d see this much business, but in April we had no choice,” he said.

Paragon had a head start because it had been picking up and delivering cars for oil changes and other services for the last two years, using a system that allowed customers to schedule, approve, and pay for repairs by text. As a result, it had a staff of experienced delivery drivers ready to go.

Paragon’s drivers wear masks and gloves, cover seats with protective plastic and disinfect the steering wheel and other places that might have been touched during the delivery.

Until recently, customers had few options for buying cars online, among them Tesla, the electric car company, and Carvana, a nationwide seller of used cars.

Tesla customers can choose and customize cars, secure financing and pay for their cars on the company’s website. Carvana has a similar system allowing customers to peruse its nationwide inventory. Buyers can have cars shipped to them, sometimes at no additional cost.

“This is what consumers want and expect now,” said Ernest Garcia III, Carvana’s chief executive. “The product comes to you. You don’t go to the product.”

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Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Conventional auto dealers face issues that online-only sellers do not, particularly in setting prices. Automakers use discounts and incentive programs to change prices as often as every month. Manufacturers give sales representatives leeway to cut prices to close deals, and customers know that the sticker price may not be the last word. Dealers resort to such discounts in part because other dealers in the area are competing to sell the same cars.

Some manufacturers prevent dealers from advertising the prices they would be willing to accept. For example, Honda typically requires dealers to advertise the list prices of cars on their websites, without taking into account discounts and incentives, Mr. Benstock said. For some models, that means Paragon is displaying a price that may be up to $7,000 more than what customers end up paying.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.