By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Bahamian auto dealer is urging the government to “level the playing field” as he voiced concerns that competitors are being allowed to open in-store more frequently than his own business.
Ben Albury, Bahamas Bus and Truck’s general manager, told Tribune Business it “would be nice to see things implemented across the board” given that some rivals are able to open their auto parts departments to walk-in business three days per week compared to his one.
He pointed, in particular, to Wulff Road-based Automotive Industrial Distributors (AID), which in a May 1 posting to its Facebook page said its auto parts section was open to walk-in traffic three days per week. “Auto and home supplies now open every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday starting May 1,” the posting, seen by this newspaper, said. “Tire and service centre 8am to 5pm. Parts, housewares and hardwares, 8am to 8pm.”
Emphasising that he bore no grudge or malice towards AID, Mr Albury said his primary complaint was that the government is providing some companies with an unfair competitive advantage by loosening the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions more on them than his own business. Bahamas Bus and Truck, along with other auto dealers and parts stores, is only allowed to open one day per week to walk-in customers.
“I’m hoping we’ll be given a little more freedom,” he said. “I know companies that are offering the same thing have been granted more days to be open. AID were given three days a week to open their store, while also doing curb-side parts and service.
“They’ve been granted permission to open everything three days a week, parts, service the whole nine yards. I’m very happy for them, and are glad to see the guys back, but I’d like to see it more across the board with everybody. At least level the playing field.”
AID also sells home furnishings, which enables it to be open on Wednesday and Friday as well as the auto parts day of Tuesday, under the government’s Emergency Powers COVID-19 Orders and regulations. However, the uneven application of the government’s lockdown restrictions and their subsequent easings, with some businesses seemingly allowed to open more and earlier than others, has been an ongoing issue.
Meanwhile, auto dealers such as Bahamas Bus and Truck have now been able to re-open their service departments to curb-side business. Mr Albury said service clients have to make an appointment either online or over the phone, and leave their vehicles “on the front porch” at the specified time.
They can e-mail in a list of items that need to be fixed, and submit payment via e-mailed credit card authorisations, with the vehicle left outside with security present once it is ready for pick-up. Auto dealers in general have also been getting used to sanitising the steering wheel, door handles and gear lever when mechanics get into a vehicle, and doing the same when they exit.
“One thing I’m glad of is that at least it’s helped to justify having staff back and keeping them paid,” Mr Albury added. “I know coming back in and getting back into the saddle takes a while to get your mind working, and get things back the way they were before. It’s going to take some time to grease the wheels.”
Describing the industry, and wider economy’s, reopening as “a process”, he said: “At each stage we’ll be better able to serve the community and make the business viable. The long view of one day at a time. That’s the way I’m looking at it. We’ve just got to keep plugging away, do what we have to do, and hope the Government at least level the playing field.”
Mr Albury again urged the Minnis administration to look seriously at permitting auto dealers to reopen their showrooms and sales functions, arguing that “this is something that can be done in a very safe manner” because there were typically few persons viewing vehicles at any one time which made it easier to practice social distancing.
“Service is the safest department in my opinion,” he said. “Service also will be safe as you’re eliminating the face-to-face contact, but people need to come in and research parts and have discussions as to what their needs are.”
The Bahamas Bus and Truck chief also called for “better communication channels from the Prime Minister’s Office”, noting that numerous letters and recommendations submitted by both the Bahamas Motor Dealers Association (BMDA) and individual dealerships had yet to receive a reply.
“We’ve found the communication to be sluggish to say the least,” Mr Albury added. “It would be good to improve the channels of communication, and hopefully we will start to see that.”
Urging that the auto industry’s parts and service functions be seen as an “essential service”, he said: “It’s a win-win for the business, the employees, the community and the Government. Transportation is extremely important to essential workers, even more so at a time when public transport is non-existent.
“I think the Government is doing the best they can. They’re pretty overwhelmed, and have a lot of people coming at them from different angles, but I think service is about as essential a service as you can get. And service and parts go hand in hand. You’re really fooling yourself if you have one and not the other.
“Now that we’re opening back up we need to look at how we do this thing as smartly and effectively as possible.”