Car dealer sees success despite pandemic

By Michael Kinney

For almost two months, Anthony Santiago was living out of a hotel room. Despite having a beautiful home, the general manager of Lawton Chrysler Jeep Dodge RAM felt it was best for him not to see his family for a while.

Because Santiago’s wife, Gretchen, has pre-existing and underlying medical conditions, he couldn’t keep working and go home every night.

“And I just thought it’d be prudent that during these times while I’m working with various customers, that I keep her safe,” Santiago said. “And so, I just decided for a while that I would work and stay away and let her quarantine and be safe. I’m probably one of the millions of people who are doing things differently in order to keep their families safe.”

Santiago’s quarantine from his family ended June 12 after he and his wife made the decision it was time.

“It’s a short period of time. We were just doing it for during the time of chaos,” Santiago said. “.We were hoping that something would change as far as either very much lowering of the curve, not just flattening or a cure. But at the end of the day, we made a decision that it’s more important for me to be home with family right now.”

However, that was only one of Santiago’s concerns when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Businesses around the country were closing, and the chance of layoffs taking place was a distinct possibility.

In March when Lawton started closing all nonessential businesses, Santiago was concerned about the future.

“My initial thought is we were going to close down. I had no idea that they would consider us essential. Glad for it,” Santiago said. “I’m glad that I was able to keep all my employees. Was really concerned about my people, to be honest with you. And so much, I couldn’t sleep the first few days. My thought process was we’re going to be like everybody else and we’re going to be out of commission for a few weeks.”

But because the automobile industry fell into the essential category, Lawton Chrysler Jeep Dodge RAM was to stay in operation. However, even Santiago was split on the decision.

“To be honest, for me personally, I was hoping we would be closed for a couple of weeks because I thought it would be best for the nation,” Santiago said. “But for my people, I was pretty ecstatic for it. I was pretty happy that they had a chance to provide for their families. Surprised and thankful.”

Yet, just because the dealership didn’t have to shut down, it didn’t mean everyone was going to feel safe coming in to work. Santiago didn’t want to pressure anyone into working if they were not comfortable, so he made an executive decision that many employers across the country didn’t make.

“I think that was the decision everybody had to make on their own. We should never force somebody to work through those conditions, and so we didn’t,” Santiago said. “The first thing we did was offer them all the opportunity to go home and to come back to a job that was fully available when they came back. I thought it was important. I thought it was important to have that opportunity.”

According to Santiago, only two employees at the dealership chose to stay away during the lockdown. But he says both would have their same jobs whenever they decide it’s safe for them to return to work.

For everyone else who stayed and worked, Santiago had one other major concern – were they going to be able to make any money?

With the majority of residents in Comanche County and Southwest Oklahoma supposedly in social isolation and not collecting a paycheck due to not working, Santiago didn’t know where the sales would come from. 

Dealerships across the state and the nation were preparing for the worst.

“I know many dealerships lessened their staff dramatically,” Santiago said. “One in Oklahoma City fired 90 percent of their staff.”

Santiago didn’t want that to happen at his dealership, but he couldn’t guarantee it.

But then a strange thing started to happen. Even as the pandemic was at its worst, people were still going out and purchasing cars.

“March is normally our biggest month of the year. Initially, there was a 25 percent drop in service, maybe 40 percent,” Santiago said. “But we recovered in April which is quite surprising. April we had record sales. April really just took over for March, which is normally our best month. April wound up being our best month despite that we were still suffering the consequences of corona, but people were still looking to purchase.”

What makes the success Santiago saw even more amazing was that it was the opposite around the nation. Every major automobile manufacturer saw sharp declines in the month of April.

According to Edmunds, the car shopping analyst, due to the coronavirus pandemic, there was a 52.5% decrease in total sales compared to April of 2019. The analysts stated this April was the lowest-volume sales month dating back to at least 1990.

“April auto sales took the biggest hit we’ve seen in decades,” said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’ executive director of insights. “These bleak figures aren’t just because consumers are holding back on their purchases — fleet sales are seeing an even more dramatic drop as daily rental business has dried up. Like many other industries, the entire automotive sector is struggling as the coronavirus crisis continues to cripple the economy.”

When looking at those numbers, Santiago can only guess why his dealership was able to strive while others struggled. 

“I can attribute that maybe to the fact that they were going to purchase in March and just held off. And so maybe April is just double the opportunities,” Santiago said. “Plus the stimulus check might’ve influenced them. But the truth is most of the vehicles that were purchased were the high-end vehicles, Ram Trucks. And that is probably due to the incentives some of these other vehicle manufacturers were offering customers during this time.”

For customers to keep making big-ticket item purchases during such a time of uncertainty did tell Santiago a few things.

“The confidence that people have that this is not going to be a long-term pandemic. That they’re confident that despite the numerous job losses, the numerous deaths, that they realize that this is a great time to invest,” Santiago said. “Some people just thought that this was an opportune time to invest in a market being really low. You’d think that fear would take over and it didn’t, not in the car business.”

Now that the economy has opened back up and restrictions have loosened, Santiago isn’t sure which direction car sales is heading. While dealerships were able to stay open, most manufacturing companies had to shut down.

So with no new cars hitting the showroom floor anytime soon, dealerships will be experiencing a new situation.

“I believe that it will either stay at this level or actually decrease a little simply because of roughly three months of no production of vehicles,” Santiago said. “The factories being closed down, much of the used cars being depleted because of the factories being closed down, the actual volume of product is at all-time lows right now. So customers are not getting exactly what they want sometimes. Sometimes they’re settling for what they can get or what’s available in lieu of what exactly they want. But I hope I am wrong.”

Story by Michael Kinney/Michael Kinney Media

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