Staying open for business - Who is to say whether a car is essential or not?

At the time of writing, the government guidelines have “vehicle showrooms” on the list of businesses and venues which must close. The stated objective is to “reduce social contact”.

The guidelines also state that “non-essential retail can remain open for delivery to customers and click-and-collect”.

This clearly means that car dealers can operate with both a Click & Deliver model and a Click & Collect model. What is not clear is what exactly do they mean by “vehicle showroom”? Can a dealer who operates solely from an outside forecourt stay open? Can a dealer allow access to the public through a showroom if their service reception is in the showroom? Can they allow a consumer in to finalise a finance deal from the warmth of a showroom?

The answers to these questions are unlikely to be specifically addressed by the government anytime soon, unless one of our lobbying bodies asks the questions. So, following is our advice based on what we know so far.

If the objective is to reduce social contact, then what the government want to achieve is less people wandering around, mixing with each other and touching multiple surfaces. This would suggest that car forecourts would also have to cease business in the sense that they should not be allowing people to rock up and wander about looking at various cars.  However, with people being urged to stay at home except for work, education, and a few other exceptions, it is fair to assume that footfall would reduce anyway which automatically reduces social contact. If a dealer trading solely from a forecourt does want to stay open, then their first hurdle is to argue that is it only “vehicle showrooms” i.e. indoor showrooms which have to close. Assuming they get over that hurdle, the next to consider is whether they need to close as a non-essential business anyway? This leads to the question: “What is non-essential?”. We have already seen in the press a man from Wales doing his shopping in just his pants and socks in protest of clothes being deemed non-essential, and so, who is to say whether a car is essential or not? If a key worker’s car breaks down beyond economic repair, isn’t it essential that they are able to get a new car to get to work? Same with anyone who cannot work from home, whether they work in the NHS, in manufacturing or on a building site, they could all need a car at any point. Therefore, how can car sales be non-essential, especially when people are encouraged to avoid public transport?

In short, our general advice is definitely close your indoor showroom except for access purposes (which can include getting to a service reception or to finalise finance documentation), consider the arguments versus the risks of keeping a forecourt open but certainly offer Click & Collect and Click & Deliver. There are always arguments to be had especially over rushed out guidelines. Those enforcing, including the police and Trading Standards, will no doubt all have their own interpretations, a bit like VAR really.

Overall, if you are unsure or just want a sounding board to work out your options, our legal helpline is part of your Small Business or Professional membership packages.

Authors: Nona Bowkis

Published: 03 Nov 2020


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