Tackling the threat of fake reviews

Online customer reviews are a key indicator of business performance, with even negative comments, if handled properly, offering potential benefits.

But along with the furore over ‘fake news’, review sites have been infiltrated by bogus customers. Typically, these are a business rival or a disgruntled ex-employee posting critical comments or from companies engaging third parties to promote excellence.

Noting that more than 50 per cent of UK consumers either read or post reviews, the Competition and Markets Authority warns that writing or commissioning fake reviews can lead to civil or criminal action. Last year the CMA took action against an online marketing company that posted fake reviews on behalf of its clients.

“The last few months have undoubtedly shone a spotlight on the reviews industry and drawn into question the legitimacy of online customer reviews,” said Matt West, chief marketing officer of Feefo.

According to Feefo’s latest research, around 75 per cent of consumers are worried about the issue, with only seven per cent saying they completely trusted reviews. “Interestingly, despite this scepticism, the actual opinion of other people is still held in high regard, with the majority (69%) generally trusting the recommendations of fellow shoppers,” says West.

Despite consumer concerns, especially among those who regularly shop online, he said businesses can put in place measures to assure customers. These include using an independent third-party company to verify the reviews, ensuring all reviews are published and are 100% genuine. 

“Because we operate a ‘feedback by invitation only’ model, which means we only invite customers who have directly engaged with the brand, product or service to leave feedback, it ensures all reviews are from genuine customers.” said West. 


Neil Smith, director at used car company Imperial Cars, blamed a business rival for a “bad experience” with a series of fake reviews that took two months to resolve.

“The problem is never knowing how much business we may lose because of them (fake reviews) and you can’t be too vocal about disputing them, otherwise consumers get suspicious – a case of ‘he doth protest too much’,” said Smith. 

Extract from AM magazine June 2017

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Is poor enquiry management losing you sales?

Manufacturers and dealers spend millions on marketing campaigns to sell new and used cars, but how effective are they in converting customer inquiries into sales?

CRM agency Marketing Delivery examined a sample of 63,000 inquiries and found that, on average, 64 per cent are identified as ‘lost’ – typically because it has not been possible for the salesperson to make contact or because a vehicle is not immediately available in stock.

Categorising the lead as ‘lost’ normally means the dealership’s contact with the potential customer is terminated.

However, when the agency contacted those prospects by email, an average of 40 per cent said they were still ready and able to buy a car from the same dealership.

“It's clear that dealerships are losing significant volumes of business as a result of deficiencies in the performance of sales staff or shortfalls in sales processes, or both,” says managing director Jeremy Evans.

Training provider Symco points to other research indicating an average six-hour response from initial inquiry through email, contrasting with the 60 minutes that a prospect is prepared to wait before going to another website.

“It’s not just a case of responding quickly, but also what is said to engage the customer,” says the company’s founder and MD Simon Bowkett.

He thinks part of the problem lies with recruitment and its traditional emphasis on face-to-face skills in the days when “showroom walk-ins” were the norm for initial customer contact.

Part of Marketing Delivery’s work through its eCRM services is to help dealers track leads and evaluate performance by sales staff.

Further evidence of how technology is driving customer expectations comes from Dealerweb, whose clients include Jardine, Ford Retail, Volvo and Infiniti. Earlier this year, results of its survey of 1,000 motorists showed:

•                    49 per cent expect a response to an online enquiry from a dealer within one hour

•                    25 per cent expect a response in under 30 minutes

•                    34 per cent would take their inquiry elsewhere if the dealer didn’t respond in less than four hours

•                    56 per cent of men and 44 per cent of women would be more likely to commit to a purchase if responded to in less than one hour.

The decline in walk-in inquiries is also highlighted by a sample of 200 dealers reporting a 21 per cent rise in inquiries in quarter three of this year compared to 2015 – the result of a 62 per cent increase in web-generated leads, and a mere 0.6 per cent increase in walk-ins.

The IT and digital marketing group, CDK Global, believes that qualification plays a critical part in the inquiry chain, with contact centres providing the first link.

“These act as a screening process, identifying calls that are unlikely to result in a sales conversion,” says Wallis Lavery, senior product manager – marketing and product management. “It could be an individual, or an organisation, browsing for research purposes or just out of general interest. The screening frees up the salesperson to focus on genuine leads.”

Extract from AM Magazine Jan 2017

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 Electric vehicles: an end to 'false dawns'?

 With climate change governing ever tougher laws to combat air pollution, backers of alternative power for vehicles believe there will be no more ‘false dawns’ that have dogged electric car development since its invention more than 150 years ago.

Poppy Welch, head of Go Ultra Low, a campaign for plug-in vehicles backed by the Department for Transport and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, says that business users are “taking the bull by the horns”, with fleets accounting for 65 per cent of electric/hybrid registrations.

“Though users are mainly influenced by cost savings – as low as 2p a mile compared to 10p to 12p for petrol/diesel - emissions play a significant part in energy audits and social responsibility commitments,” said Welch.

She described the presence of ultra low emissions vehicles in the UK parc as “roughly in line with government expectations” – up from 0.44 per cent in 2014 to just over one per cent last year - and expected the fall-out from the VW emissions testing debacle, coupled with cancer scares over diesel, to “encourage more people to look at alternatives”.

Leasing provider Alphabet reports “a dramatic increase in interest” from organisations looking to include electric vehicles in their corporate fleets. The number of EVs on its portfolio has more than doubled to just over 3,000 since the end of 2014, beating last year’s target.

But David Bushnell, Alphabet’s product manager – mobility, acknowledges that this is still “relatively low” at less than five per cent of its leases and attributes this to a series of reasons, among them “quite a lot of misinformation in the marketplace and a reluctance among decision makers to embrace technology”.

“There’s also a need for more uniformity on (government) incentives and greater visibility on tax,” he says. “With fleets working on three to four year cycles, they don’t have sight of what tax levels are going to be beyond then, so there’s nervousness about benefit-in-kind, for instance.”

He described the £200 reduction in grants for fitting home charging points as “bizarre” at a time when the government is aiming for a target of five per cent ULE new vehicle registrations by 2020. “With less of an incentive for drivers to recharge at home, there’s a risk that they will just run them as conventional vehicles.”

Extract from Fleet News, Feb 2016

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 Fleet management: shopping around around for the best deal

Before the arrival of supermarkets, canny shoppers trawled the high streets comparing prices for their weekly provisions.  Online shopping has removed the legwork while still providing information on best buys.

Could the equivalent now be gaining momentum in fleet management, with technology offering potential cost savings through ‘unbundling’ compared to the one-stop-shop supplier route?

Tony Greenidge, sales and marketing director of consulting and management company Fleet Operations, says there is a growing trend towards the multi-bid approach, especially with LCVs. “The vehicles themselves represent the biggest overhead and prices can range from £20 to £40 a month for basically the same van in the same spec, so it makes sense to look at a choice of providers rather than one.

“There’s an attitude of maintaining the status quo with sole-supply, particularly if fleet operators have had a bad experience in the past of choosing supplier(s) who have failed to deliver.   So they could reason ‘if it ain’t broke...’ and why risk the hassle?

“But over the past 12 months there’s been a significant shift towards multi-bid, with technology making it so much easier to obtain the most competitive deal from a provider of funding, maintenance, accident management, and so on.”

Maurice Elford, fleet manager of L&Q Housing Association, said his company is preparing for a new telematics provider that will pave the way for a “keener quote” on fleet dedicated insurance, rather than having it wrapped within L&Q’s overall cover.

He is also looking for a reduction of around seven per cent on fuel - the “biggest pinchpoint”, currently accounting for around 25 per cent of operating costs – resulting from the new data that will show “more information than speed and position to include other factors like acceleration and braking”.

Extract from Commercial Fleet, Jan 2016

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'Live chat' route to car buying

Potential car buyers browsing the internet at night for a suitable model could find themselves invited to a ‘live chat’ with a dealership sales exec.

It’s just one example of the way technology – along with legislation intended to ‘treat customers fairly’ – has transformed car sales over the past ten years.

In the showroom, sales brochures are being complemented by video and touch-screen demonstrations of the product, with tablets replacing calculators for add-on presentations like service plans and finance.

Norfolk Motor Group has added a live chat feature to its website, connected to the mobile devices of its 13-strong sales force.  “It’s proving to be an important part of the sales process,” said MD Grant Long, “with incentives for those who can show success by engaging with customers out of normal working hours. Someone could be watching Match of the Day at home, for example, when they identify a prospect looking at our site.”

Coaching expert Karl Davis compares today’s search and selection route for consumers with speed dating and says that dealerships have to adapt to rapid response to survive. “Scale helps, but casualties in food and aviation are a lesson for those who are too slow to adapt to changing market conditions.”

Davis, who worked on the manufacturer and retail side before setting up his Coachworks consultancy, explained:  “Online traffic is replacing showroom traffic and the days when customers relied on a dealership for information are gone. Now they visit for the best deal and maybe a test drive.”

Phil Webb, head of Honda Cars UK, said: “Customers go into dealerships far better informed than they ever were. They know about a particular model, its features and capabilities – some even come in with their iPads to show exactly what they want and to satisfy themselves that it’s the right colour in the flesh.”

Extract from AM Magazine Nov 2015

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Car paint protection: The challenge from social media sceptics

Though paint protection falls outside Financial Conduct Authority regulation, it is subjected to scrutiny – often critical – on motoring forums over effectiveness and price.

Russell Young, CEO of Tribos Coatings, wants to see a “mindshift” among dealers where the focus is less on profit and more on the quality of the product and its application. “With no FCA protection, it’s possible to sell anything and sometimes it’s hard to establish whether cars have received the proper treatment, but dealers and their suppliers have to bear in mind the influence of social media.”

Rob Earle, managing director of Gtechniq, said: “From a consumer view, there is a perception that paint protection does not offer terribly good value, but there remains a desire to have your car looking as good as possible.” 


Alan Graham, key account manager with Supagard, said, like all other business, paint protection should be judged on the criteria of “treating customers fairly and with confidence in the efficacy of the product”.

Extract from AM magazine Oct 2015

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SsangYong breaks new ground with Tivoli

SsangYong chief executive Paul Williams describes the arrival earlier this year of the B-segment Tivoli crossover as “a pivotal moment” for the brand.

It’s the first new model since Korea’s oldest motor manufacturer was rescued by India’s Mahindra industrial group and joins the bigger Korando and Rexton SUVs and the Turismo MPV line-up.

Korando and Turismo are currently the most popular, but Williams expects Tivoli to account for 50 per cent of sales next year, with total volume increasing from 4,000 to 6,500. That compares with less than 200 when the company seemed to be heading for oblivion five years ago.

“A key objective for Tivoli is to build brand awareness, with consumers discovering what else we have to offer,” said Williams. Riding on that is a longer term ambition for a market share of three to four per cent in the 4x4 and crossover market. With B-segment vehicles accounting for 120,000 units, that could take Tivoli into the 4,000-plus bracket,  


Williams reports that traffic through SsangYong’s revamped website has doubled since Tivoli’s launch in May, aided by a £1m TV and digital promotion in June and July. That will be repeated in September, along with the launch of a diesel version. “We’re also punching above our weight with media exposure.”

Meanwhile, there’s continuing build-up of the dealer network since the brand was “re-started” under its new owner. It’s increased from 35 to 65 and is expected to total 75 by the end of the year.

Extract from AM magazine, Oct 2015

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3-way benefit of extended warranty

Extended warranties are worth selling, not just for the revenue potential and consumer benefit, but also for dealer protection.

That’s the reasoning voiced by at least three warranty providers. As Eric Stone, business development director of the WMS Group, put it: “Consumers have their statutory rights, but what about the dealer? It’s all very well to say to the customer ‘if anything goes wrong, come back and we’ll fix it’, but if the engine packs up they could be faced with having to pay hundreds of pounds.

“It’s like holding a bag of money on a car you’ve sold and not being able to bank it for six months or so.”

As for the consumer benefit, Stone added: “Most people wouldn’t dream of having no home insurance, yet houses are not being driven over potholes for months and years on end.”

David Gerrans, managing director at Warranty Direct, commented: “It is inexplicable that so many people should opt to purchase a warranty for items such as boilers or small electrical appliances, yet comparatively few adopt the same attitude towards covering their car.”

Richard Hodges, marketing manager of Warranty Wise, cited another persuasive selling point:  “The most competitively priced cover is at point of sale because the vehicle has undergone condition checks and a service.

“If a customer belatedly decides a warranty is maybe a good idea after all – perhaps after a nasty repair bill – the cost is obviously factored into this.”

 Extract from AM magazine April 2015

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   Why refurb is worth the risk

Why bother with the time and expense of refurbing scruffy used cars to retail condition – with no guarantee of a sale to recoup the cost - when manufacturers pile on the pressure to sell factory fresh stock?

As Steve McBrierty, CEO of car valeting company Motorclean, noted: “When the (new) market is strong, dealers tend not to have the same level of focus on maximising the value of used.”

But that attitude carries the risk of ‘over-egging’ the retail mix to the point where it’s too rich for some tastes. As Graeme Potts, managing director of the Eden Group, explained: “There are customers looking for cars four to five years’ old, perhaps with higher mileages to help keep the price down. We have to address the market in its breadth.”

With eight outlets collectively selling more than 10,000 used cars a year, Eden invariably adds vehicles in its franchised portfolio and still under manufacturer warranty to its retail stocklist. Others call for a “commercial judgement” at the point of acquisition. 

“Rather than look at a characteristic margin, there are examples where we see one that’s a bit skinny, but accept it because the car fits into our retail offer,” said Potts. 

Rob Barr, a director of the Vehicle Remarketing Association, believed commercial judgement should rely less on age/mileage than ensuring that the cost of re-furb “can be offset against the purchase price and the final stand-in price still reflects good value”.

Barr said the right balance of product was key to generating demand.”Though there are a limited number of analytical tools in the market to assist dealers with this, these are relatively new and it is an area which will undoubtedly grow in years to come.”

He added that the case for refurbishment was largely dictated by the consumer, who – influenced by manufacturers’ approved used car schemes - now expects vehicles, irrespective of age, to be prepared to retail standards. “Obvious damage is not acceptable and will often turn the consumer away from not just the car, but the dealership itself.”

Mark Llewellyn, managing director of the Revive! network of franchised Smart technicians, recalled the time when dealers put off minor repairs until the car had been sold. “The attitude was ‘why waste money when it may not sell?’, but that’s no longer acceptable. It puts the salesman on the back foot, with the customer asking himself ‘what else is wrong that I haven’t spotted?’”

With Smart work now a routine part of the used car prep procedure, Llewellyn said his company was looking for extended collaboration with dealers. “Customers who have suffered minor damage would be encouraged to return to the dealer. It not only adds value to the Smart proposition, but aids customer retention.”

In broad terms, Neil Marcus, marketing director of Selsia’s 90-strong network of Accident Centres, says that Smart repairs would be appropriate for a lower value, non-prestige marque with over 70,000 miles on the clock. Higher value cars up to three years’ old with a mileage up to 50K would be more deserving of bodyshop attention.

“If we’re talking about light accident and cosmetic bodywork damage on, say, two to three panels, Selsia has a same-day service costing on average around £300 plus VAT,” said Marcus. “Volume discounts are available to dealers using our promotional code.”

Dealers can go online and highlight bodywork damage on the schematics relating to the make, model and style of any vehicle that generates an instant estimate. “With this information, they can make an immediate judgement on the (part-exchange) they can allow to the customer and its retail value,” said Marcus.

Peter Istead, MD of Lifestyle Europe, said it was imperative to run used and new car businesses as separate departments. “A manager looking after both runs the risk of dropping the ball on used to focus on new,” he commented.

Selling around 6,000 used cars a year through nine sites, 70 per cent of Lifestyle’s stock is part-exchange, 10 to 15 per cent sourced through auction and the remainder pre-reg. PXs undergo a 55-point appraisal, with body and mechanical work typically costing £350, plus valeting. “We don’t look at this in terms of what value it adds to the car; it’s what the customer expects, but it would be reasonable to say it’s worth £200 to £230 more,” said Istead.

Most unwanted vehicles are disposed of through Manheim’s physical and digital auctions. “With space at a premium, you can’t afford to have unsold stock sitting around,” said Istead.

Sometimes, a car that looks destined for trade disposal at a knock-down price can bring unexpected reward.

Stephen Brighton, managing director of Hepworth Honda, cited a part-exchange Jaguar S-Type with a book value of £2,000. But after a listing on the Dealer Exchange website, it fetched £3,500.

Brighton acknowledged the pressure on UK dealers to move new metal as the market in the rest of Europe remained weak. But he echoed Potts’ view on the importance of featuring older stock; in Hepworth’s case typically Jazz and Civic in the £4K to £6K bracket. “We look at what is popular new and reason that it will retain popularity in three to four years’ time.”

Around one third of Hepworth’s 700 used cars a year from its three sites are trade disposals. “We tend not to use auctions because of the fees, but are active on  websites such as Dealer Exchange,” said Brighton.

“We reckon to spend up to £400 on repairs, expecting to recoup two thirds on the sale. Anything above £500 when you’re looking for a reasonable margin doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre.”

 Extract from AM magazine Dec 2014

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Protection flaw prompts change in warranty code

Industry efforts to improve consumer confidence in used car warranties, supported by government regulation, seemed to be working after the collapse of Warranty Holdings a decade ago. But then in quick succession came two more failures: Online motor trader Autoquake in 2011, followed a year later by breakdown insurance firm Motorcare Elite. Even cars still under manufacturer warranty came in for some bad publicity when Saab went into receivership two years ago.

Autoquake’s collapse after six years of trading was especially damaging because it exposed a gap in funds that were supposed to be ring-fenced. A portion of revenue set aside to cover non-insured warranty claims was seized by administrators, leaving more than 400 claimants potentially out of pocket and generating a stream of grievances on internet motoring forums from other policyholders.

In the event, Car Care Plan, which managed the claims, agreed to cover the amount in the fund at the time Autoquake went under – around £350,000.

But the episode had another knock-on effect. Autoquake and CCP were subscribers to the SMMT’s code of practice on warranties and Autoquake’s policy handbook stated that, as part of this code, non-insured claims were protected.

It prompted the Society’s Motor Codes subsidiary to withdraw the code and replace it with another, introduced last June. It joins other codes covering new car sales and repair as part of the industry’s initiative for self-regulation and embraces both non-insured products and those subject to Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulation.

However, instead of the original assurance of protection for non-insured cover, the revised code states: “Should the retailer of a non-insured product cease to trade, it is possible that the product will no longer be valid.”

But, in an attempt to bolster credibility, it also says that subscribers “will take reasonable steps”, supported by a yearly review, to ensure that its retail partners are credit worthy. These amendments will also be featured in updated policy documents.

AM magazine Oct 2014

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Service advisers the 'kingpins' of aftersales

The quality of manufacturer-backed technician training and diagnostic equipment is largely taken as ‘a given’ in a franchised dealer’s service, maintenance and repair (SMR) business.

So where is the potential weak spot? Step forward all those on the service desk. You have been singled out as arguably the most important component in aftersales. Get something wrong and there’s a risk of the workshop not achieving a satisfactory fix on a customer’s car - and that could have a knock-on effect on trust, loyalty, CS performance and ultimately dealer profit.

Mazda’s aftersales director David Wilson-Green said: “In the constant search for improvement, the focus tends to be on people rather than process. When customers walk into service reception the first person they meet is expected to be good at admin and sales, with technical knowledge and the ability to listen, question and empathise. And their pay doesn’t always reflect these skills.”

Malcolm Miller, managing director of training and development provider RTS, agreed, describing service advisers as “kingpins”, but added:  “It’s not just a question of pay, but recruitment. Having a former technician on the desk can carry the risk of the customer being blinded with techno fog.

“While advisers need some technical knowledge, a genuine desire to help people scores higher and their main strengths should be in customer handling, building trust and confidence. Trust builds loyalty and loyalty builds profits.”

Extract from AM magazine Aug 2014 

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Used ‘Book’ values overtaken by daily updates

 What have team sports like football and rugby got in common with used car sales? Quite a lot, according to information specialist Tim Marriott, who looked at how data tracking is used to monitor team and individual player performance during a game and compared it with statistics generated by every used vehicle advertised online.

“Just as a player’s fatigue levels can be monitored by measuring total distance covered, average sprint distance and top speeds, so the online consumer is leaving a trail of data about what vehicles they are looking at - every competitor’s stock list, price changes and days in stock can be tracked in real-time, said Marriott, senior product manager with data analytics company Deltapoint.

 Using  information from parent company Autotrader – including analysis of more than 3m  advert hits  - Deltapoint’s i-Control stock management system identifies what’s hot and what’s not in the used car market with a star rating linked to postcodes, along with daily updates of trade and retail values.

As well as pulling in Autotrader’s website search activity, it also incorporates information from BCA’s fleet and lease databank.

BCA meanwhile offers Dealer Pro to help dealerships manage vehicle appraisals, reflecting the cross partnerships of system providers.

“While the fundamentals of purchasing have not changed, information is now much more transparent and dynamic,” said Marriott. It’s yet another example of the way the internet has revolutionised trading, and Marriott pointed to the effect this has had on traditional printed sources, commenting: “Dealerships now have to manage a car throughout its sale life with daily information rather than monthly books.” 

Even ‘Black Book’ publisher CAP acknowledges this, issuing a warning earlier this year that its April edition had been “rapidly overtaken by a dipping market trend”.

It’s to overcome the problem of ‘catch-up’ that CAP, along with its main book rival Glass’s, offers the option of a ‘real- time' valuation service.

With sites in Surrey, Sussex and Kent representing eight franchises, Lifestyle Europe has dispensed with paper valuation, opting for systems ranging from CAP linked to ADP’s Drive dealer management system to i-Control. “Website clicks on our stocklist where there is no follow-up usually indicates that the price is too high or the spec is wrong,” said group sales director Paul Murrells.

Each site is responsible for its own stock, reporting weekly to head office on sales.  “Prices tend to be influenced first by the local market, then regional, then national, chipping down until there’s a sale, with a stock turn of once a month.”

Murrells stressed the importance of “keeping over-age vehicles under control”, with auction or trade disposal after 90 days. Part exchanges with “low desirability” tended to be traded on from the outset.

Daren Wiseman, valuation services manager at Manheim Auctions, said that irrespective of data-driven systems or a more manual approach, the days of relying on “gut instinct” alone were long gone.

 “Most dealers review their stock – and that of their local competitors – on a daily basis to ensure they are priced competitively and focused on the most desirable spec.

“The flexibility to make a tweak to pricing and marketing can be all the difference between a profit and loss.”

Deltapoint monitored price changes on 2.5m vehicles in the £8 to £9K range and found that 10 per cent were reduced by £500 and five per cent by £1,000. “That’s like knocking £25,000 off a £250,000 house because it’s not selling, but small, incremental movements can make a difference in consumer perception of good value for money,” said Marriott. “Even a reduction of, say, £67 could prompt a move in best value from 10th to fourth.”

Location, along with spec, also had a part to play, with Marriot citing a recent example of i-Control’s star rating: A 13 plate 1 Series BMW with basic spec rated 1.5 in Edinburgh, but 4.3 in Glasgow.

Guy Thomas, BCA’s head of product development, also referred to location when pointing to Dealer Pro’s ability to identify cars in one dealership that may be of interest to another within the same group. “There is the option to ‘buy’ these rather than sending them to auction – what is wrong for one geographical location may be perfect stock for another.”

Thomas said the dealer could even retain the vehicle on the forecourt, while consigning it to an ‘offsite’ sale at BCA.

Philip Nothard, CAP’s retail and consumer editor, said in pre-internet days dealers felt fairly safe in working to a 45-60 day review of stock, but now there was “more of a grey area”, especially with difficult-to-sell cars. “Instead of sending them to auction, perhaps they should consider whether it’s in the right location in their network, or on the right website. Even a move on the forecourt with a ‘special offer’ sticker can make a difference.”

 Murrells said Lifestyle’s presence on a series of websites, from Autotrader to eBay, generated more “out of territory” sales. “Being near Gatwick, it’s not unusual for us to pick up prospective customers from as far afield as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Cornwall.”

Nothard pointed to the downside of this over more localised custom, explaining: “They are influenced by price and price alone and are unlikely to return.”

 Chris Green, who sold his Sky Ford business in Hertfordshire last year to Hartwell, said that even allowing for reconditioning and marketing costs, margins on used compared with new can be four to seven times larger, and viewed disposal outside the franchised network “as a last resort”. He added: “There aren’t many cars that just refuse to sell, and even if that means you make a small loss, there is still money to be made on finance, service plans and extended warranty.”

Paul Murrells said some vehicles “can tick all the right boxes and still stick, but generally the better the spec, the better the price, especially with 20K mileage or less”. 

For Green “there are those lovely cars – good condition, one owner, full service history – where it’s maybe worth paying over book value to secure a new car sale”. Like the mix of franchised and non-franchised stock, he said dealers should consider “a permutation of punches” to maximise opportunities.

Nothard said that although factors like manufacturer incentives and dealer standards affected the ratio of franchised to non-franchised stock, “dealers can’t afford to have an empty space on the forecourt or website because it can mean a lost profit of, say, £1,200 on every stock turn”.

Murrells said Lifestyle’s biggest challenge was obtaining good quality stock. “Best source is part exchange, but customers are now holding onto their cars for longer, typically four to five years.”

Nothard said that, depending on market conditions, dealers were now more selective on buying at auction. “Whereas at one time it may have been one in five, it’s more likely to be one in 20.”

Though acknowledging the benefits of new technology, Green said: “At the end of the day, there are traditional values – offering quality checked cars where the ‘history is no mystery’ to give customers peace of mind.”

Murrells said: “It’s wise not to become too reliant on systems; you have to combine this with experience,” with Wiseman describing it as “a healthy dose of industry knowledge”.

Accurate weather forecasting may come in handy, too, with Nothard recalling: “A lot of dealers were caught out by SUV demand during the winter of 12-13, with these models attracting premium prices. So this time round, they bought early in expectation of a repeat....”

Automotive Management June 2014

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 'Backstop' option for parts sales

In an ideal franchised world, dealers would regard parts mainly for use in their own service bays and bodyshops.

But if they can’t reverse the loss of out-of-warranty cars to independent garages for maintenance and repair, at least they have a backstop option – selling parts to those garages.

Ridgeway Group has three BMW outlets in its brand portfolio that turn over a combined £10m year in parts, most of it generated by trade sales. At Hook, where 70 per cent of its £5m revenue comes from external customers, parts manager Toby Cartell said: “A local independent will typically spend £10,000 to £15,000 a month with us. It’s almost the opposite of the traditional practice when most parts were for internal need and the dealer had a small retail presence.

“As much as VMs want to see cars kept within their networks, they realise it’s not happening and this creates an opportunity for dealers to engage in wholesale, encouraged by manufacturer bonuses.” 

He added:  “The key to wholesaling is to gain a real understanding of a customer’s requirements, almost to the point of being in their workshop. It’s about good communication – and a critical aspect of that is having the right people on the phones – and delivery.

“It’s no good talking about bundling, discounts and so on if you haven’t got the infrastructure to deliver what you promise when the customer needs it.”

 Infrastructure is an issue picked up by industry consultant Karl Davis. He pointed to the stiff competition from “well-resourced” independents like Euro Car Parts and Andrew Page, who between them operate through more than 200 branches. “From a logistical point of view, they score in heavily congested areas. Selling parts for every brand, they can do multi drop-offs. Single brand is more of a problem; a couple of miles can take 45 minutes for one drop-off.”

Davis, managing director of Coachworks Consulting, said that franchised outlets had an advantage in that they could supply a wider range of stock for their specific brand, including ‘captive’ parts, electronic control units, for instance. “These tend to be less price sensitive than, say, a headlamp lens where you may get the same production line product, with one being up to three times more expensive than the other.”

For most customers, though, delivery scored over price. “There are circumstances where you can’t anticipate parts requirements, vehicle health checks and MoTs, for instance, where ease of sourcing and speed of delivery is of the essence,” said Davis.

Another consultant, Toby Proctor from Trend Tracker, said: “It makes sense to have a trade parts division because you have the stock anyway, and having (internal) aftersales to support the business is less of a given now. But margins aren’t terrific and that needs to be weighed against the overheads – the cost of employing the man in the van.

“Dealers also need to ascertain whether there are enough independents in their locality with whom they can build a relationship – technical support is a significant part of this.”

Proctor pointed to Pendragon’s Quickco and Lookers’ FPS  as examples of how franchised groups could rival the major independent parts distributors and how the VMs – notably Volkswagen Group’s TPS network , operating through selected VW franchised outlets – were also a force to be reckoned with.

“TPS was a smart move to compete against the likes of Euro Car Parts, albeit in a more specialised sector of the parts business,” said Proctor.

Ideal world versus real world prompted Graeme Potts, CEO of the Eden Group, to comment: “I won’t hide the fact that it’s our preference to service as many of our own vehicles as we can. But to retain customers further into the vehicle age range, we have to be seen as a repository of great value, not just on price but on the whole service proposition because the difference between franchised networks and good quality independents is now so narrow as to be scarcely perceptible.

“There are substantial opportunities for parts wholesaling, third party fleet business, for example, so clearly we want to supply this need and our largest client base is independent service repair and bodyshop.”

With 10 dealerships, most of which are which are Vauxhall/Chevrolet, serving the Thames Valley, South Coast and South Devon, Eden has 20 vans and four scooters to deliver parts both to its own workshops and trade customers. The liveried scooters are deployed at Reading, Bournemouth and Exeter to counter traffic congestion within a five-mile radius. “Our infrastructure allows following day, or even same-day, delivery to locations as far apart as Exeter and Camberley,” said Potts.

Eden’s overall parts operation generates £12m a year, with Potts reporting that although margins vary from branch to branch, “it’s fair to say we are on the right side of the 20 per cent industry return.”

That’s a generous percentage compared with new car sales, but as Toby Cartell points out, the wholesaling aspect of it is not always that clear cut. “If you have dealers representing the same brand in a limited geographical area, all competing for business to maintain their VM bonuses, it creates a bit of a viper’s nest. Discounting is tempting, so margin erosion is always a danger.

“Another challenge is 30 to 45-day credit exposure and you need sizeable group resources behind you to cover that. In my 10 years in the business, I’ve known around half a dozen independent garages to go under without warning.”

A further recurring them is the complexity of the parts range, with Ben Conn, parts depot director at the Swansway Group, commenting: “A car can have 15 different types of ECU for one model year.” 

Allied with this is provenance. Brian Spratt, chief executive of the Independent Automotive Aftermarket Association, said: “The logo on the box is a presumption of quality, but one VM sells some parts in plain boxes with just the part number and another sells an oil that’s not approved for use on its own vehicles. It’s an unregulated market with everyone flogging bits to one another at silly prices.”

He said the situation was not helped with the Block Exemption change in the definition of ‘matching quality’ from the standard of parts fitted on the production line to those fitted by the VMs’ franchised networks. “We want to see a more rigorous quality inspection regime,” he added, while Toby Proctor pointed out a further complication - vehicle recalls where a build part had to be replaced.

It’s an issue that OE producers are trying to address with the setting up of the Original Equipment Suppliers Aftermarket Association. Its chairman Nigel Morgan, who is managing director of Schaeffler, explained:  “VMs and original equipment suppliers have to look at their programmes and what they are selling.

“It’s not necessarily OE, they could have second-line product. That doesn’t make it poorer quality, but our message to the aftermarket is that where parts are marketed as ‘OE quality’ there needs to evidence to back that up.”

Morgan added: “If no one makes a stand, the market falls to the lowest common denominator. In our attempts to demystify this whole subject, we hope that people can make an informed choice and, at the same time, realise that the price difference between OE and non OE is often not that great.” It’s a point echoed by Toby Cartell, who said: “VMs are trying to re-educate independent garages that their parts may not be as expensive as they thought.”

According to one auto business report, vehicle manufacturers’ attempts to boost parts sales with cheaper, second-tier products for older cars may have damaged brand value.

The report from Impetus Automotive is intended to “highlight the benefits and opportunities of maximising the core brand through a review of current parts usage and making price adjustments”.

Operations director Andy Mills said: “Our research showed that what began as a strategy to reverse declining parts sales might actually accelerate the process – and damage brand identity at the same time.”

Automotive Management Dec 2013

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Management training: Conflict over 'one size fits all'

 Does this sound familiar? Line manager Joe will be absent for a couple of days. The timing could have been better, but there’s no choice – he’s needed for some brand training, along with counterparts from other dealerships which have the same franchise. Assignment completed, the dealers can tick another box on the franchise agreement.   

It’s what one HR manager describes as “the sheepdip exercise – training is carried out, but is it appropriate for that particular individual?”

Another likens it to a “one size fits all” approach, with an assumption that dealer and manufacturer training templates are correctly aligned.

But there can be a perceived mismatch between provision and need and this is just one of a series of challenges facing motor retail in its attempts to improve the calibre of management skills and leadership.

AM magazine May 2013 (see archive for rest of story).

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Auctions and remarketing: Smartphone boost for online dealing

If internet shopping can topple high street chains like HMV and Jessops, it’s tempting to ask motor dealers looking to replenish or dispose of stock: Why go to an auction hall? All the processes – from vehicle condition reports to the bidding itself – are now possible not just through a desktop PC; online business is being downsized to palm-of-the-hand kit. 

Auction giants BCA and Manheim, along with SMA Vehicle Remarketing, are poised to launch their hand-held services, while Eastbourne Car Auctions activated its version at the end of last year.

But auction providers believe there will a continuing need for the ‘physical’ advantages of halls. And ironically it’s communication tools like smartphones that will help to ensure their survival.

Jon Mitchell, managing director of Eastbourne Car Auctions, said latest technology offers traders a ‘belt and braces’ benefit, complementing rather than supplanting, halls. Mitchell, whose company has a joint venture role with the recently launched online remarketing company Carcom, explained:  “Typically, you will see buyers at auctions equipped with smartphones and iPads looking at a vehicle and comparing it with a condition report on screen. Perhaps the report highlights some minor damage they haven’t noticed. ‘OK,’ they’re saying, ‘let’s have a closer look at that,’ while they’re flipping between Glass’s and CAP for a valuation. Plus, you get buyers who give a vehicle the once over and then sit in the canteen because they don’t want others to see they are bidding.” 

Commented Tony Gannon, communications director of BCA: “Auctions are not just about selling, but the logistics of vehicle movement, storage and prep. A dealer gets the trade-in on Saturday and wants it gone on Monday. Online bidders still want the reassurance of seeing other bidders in the auction hall.”

 Gerry Lynch, chief executive of Carcom, added:  “Like any other business, there is always a need to get out of the office and make human contact. And auction halls give you the opportunity for some tyre kicking, especially with older vehicles.” 

AM magazine Feb 2013 (see archive for rest of story).

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Storytime’ tip for oils and lubes

 Service advisers should ‘tell a story’ when it comes to selling oil. Not in a fictional sense, but as a means of increasing a car owner’s awareness of the value of a particular brand.

As Castrol’s Nigel Head explained: “Rather than just hand the customer the service invoice and ask for method of payment, it’s important to explain what’s been done – especially when it comes to an oil change. So the conversation (at a BMW dealership)should be along lines ‘we’ve drained off your old oil, replaced the filter and re-filled with Castrol Professional, the only oil recommended by BMW...’.”

Head, Castrol Professional OEM and franchised workshop marketing manager, added: “From a marketing point of view, oil is in the low interest category. There’s a vacuum of knowledge, so the temptation is to go for lowest price. Hence the need to build a story round the product’s refinements. Other oils may meet manufacturers’ spec, but there are degrees of tolerance. Castrol Professional is endorsed by no fewer than 10 car manufacturers.”

AM magazine

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Who wants to be an engineer?

Not aspiring millionaires, that's for sure, as talented school leavers and university graduates are lured to the richer grounds of financial services. But pay is not the only issue as industry struggles to fill engineering vacancies. Confusion over the definition of an engineer seems to compound another problem - its lack of status in society's pecking order. 

Motor Industry Magazine

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Andy Dunsdon, Kia’s new rental and leasing manager, says he is determined its dealer network benefits from the aftersales business generated by its fleet offensive.

“We’re considering ways in which its ‘Care-3’ service package, currently restricted to retail buyers, can be integrated into fleet deals,” he said.

Over the past five years Kia has increased its share of rental/fleet business as a proportion of total sales from 30 per cent to 40 per cent.

AM magazine

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How many cars have you sold today, dad?

When Darren and Katie Williams took over a SEAT dealership in Essex, one of their first tasks was to cut down a hedge surrounding the forecourt. "It was so high, passers-by couldn't see the cars - not that there were many to see," recalled Darren. "Not a good thing if you're in the business of retailing."

See archive for rest of story

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Customer retention: It's good to talk

  • That old saying ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’ seems especially relevant when it comes to dealers keeping in touch with customers.

    As Sue Myers, director of sales pro-cess, funding and insurance at the Marshall Motor Group, said: “Technology can aid communication, but can’t drive it – that has to be down to good old-fashioned people management.”

    Myers said the company’s dealer management system had its limitations.

    “It’s great at flagging up when to contact a customer, but there’s nothing to stop a sales exec simply moving that task to another day.”

    AM magazine

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    Apprentice cash dilemma

    It’s an all too familiar story. When times are tough, one of the first casualties –  along with redundancies – is the company training budget.

    But first, the job losses. Latest research from the Institute of the Motor Industry makes for grim reading. Redundancies in the automotive sector shot up by 55 per cent last year, compared to 2007. For the first quarter of this year, the redundancy rate was even more shocking – 182 per cent higher than for the corresponding period last year.

    ‘Skilled trades’, which make up a third of occupations within the sector, bore the brunt of the losses (45.5 %), prompting IMI research manager Alison Rhodes to comment: “If this trend continues, it could have a substantial impact on the sector’s ability to come through the recession and capitalise on future opportunities.”

    As for the impact on training, she says the picture is “mixed”, explaining: “There is evidence of employers not planning to take on new apprentices, or having to make existing apprentices redundant in the coming year. There appears to be two groups of employers emerging: those who believe that ‘now is the time to train’ as business is slower and those who view training as an unnecessary spend in time of this recession.” 

    Motor Industry Magazine

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    Hit the phones, Jack! 

    With the economy in the doldrums, businesses should be ‘hitting the phones’ to put more wind in their sales.

    Yet according to one study, the automotive sector has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to communicating with existing customers and chasing new ones.

    Only 50 per cent of marketers from Britain’s top 1,000 companies reckoned that carmakers and dealers use multi-channel communications effectively. Top of the league were travel, mobile telecoms, retail banking and insurance.

    Motor Industry Magazine 

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    At last, recognition for talented managers

    On the face of it, the evidence is damning: Less than 18% of managers in motor retail have a formal qualification compared with an average 45% across other industry sectors. But as Chris Hayden, chairman and chief executive officer of Ford Retail, points out, that doesn't mean businesses are being run by people who lack skills and experience. "There are a lot of incredibly successful people in our industry. Many of them left school with no qualifications and that hangs over them, but it shouldn't because they are very talented," he said.

    It's this disparity between ability and qualifications that the IMI is now aiming to put right with the launch of its Automotive Management Accreditation scheme.  Developed over the past three years, it's based on principles similar to Automotive Technician Accreditation (which now has more than 22,000 members on its register) to assess job competence and identify any need for skills development.

    Motor Industry Magazine

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    Brand stretch - can it take the strain? 

    Not content with sweating their assets, auto makers are heavily into another area of business aerobics known as 'brand stretch'.

    Though this particular work-out has been prompted in large measure by toughening price competition, it's by no means a case of everyone doing identical exercises.

    Contrast Mercedes, stretching down to the A-Class, with Skoda - rejuvenated under Volkswagen - stretching up into Mondeo territory with Octavia. The Vauxhall badge, hitherto confined to the family and fleet sector, has been stretched to take in the VX220 roadster, while Porsche, the embodiment of sleek, road-going performance, prepares to extend its brand into the rugged Sport Utility Vehicle sector.

    BMW, meanwhile, has decided that knees bend goes no further than its 3 Series compact, with Mini retaining its identity, while arms up under the oval badge stops at the Mondeo. Ford's five prestige marques, though corralled in the Premier Automotive Group, all retain their separate brand names. Though it may be superficially attractive for a manufacturer to strengthen and broaden its brand, industry sceptic Professor Garel Rhys argues that it's a way of introducing a market imperfection.

     "It's an attempt by manufacturers to insulate themselves from the full blast of competition where prices are mainly 'made' by the market and not by an individual supplier." Rhys, professor of motor industry economics at Cardiff Business School, added: "The reason for the current frantic interest in brand is simple - the ability to 'make' prices is being eroded and carmakers are desperate to prevent the loss of net revenue that the more competitive market is bringing."

    Given that most products - whether they be cars, mobile phones or washing machines - have much the same functionality, irrespective of their maker, it's not surprising that the logos attached to them have assumed an almost deified role, says John Williamson, a partner with brand consultancy Wolff Olins. Where companies were once assessed on the basis of traditional assets like factories and inventories, they are now scrutinised for brand value. Even that phrase beloved of company chairman - "our greatest asset is our people" - was being subjugated by brand.

    But how do you put a price on something that, as Williamson describes it, "is the intangible, emotional embodiment of a rich mixture of ideas, propositions, personality, vision and values"?

    Another consultancy, Interbrand, in conjunction with Citibank, has taken that rich mixture to compile the World's Most Valuable Brands survey. US companies, led by Coca Cola and Microsoft, dominate the rankings, accounting for 42 of the top 75 places. But while Ford, in 7th position, is the auto leader, it's the only US carmaker to feature in the latest list. Mercedes occupies 12th position, followed by Toyota (15), Honda (20), BMW (23) and Volkswagen (31). As part of the exercise, brand value is calculated as a percentage of market capitalisation. In Ford's case, it works out at whopping 75 per cent, just behind Heinz.

    Commented Interbrand president Martyn Straw: "Translating brand power into economic value begins and ends with a focus on brands as corporate assets. Companies that outperform their peers in brand value creation understand this well and proactively manage their brands as they would other key strategic assets of the company....."

    Brand care was likened by the marketing director of one car manufacturer to handling of a camp fire in the middle of winter: "It takes a lot of time and patience to get the fire established and only a little neglect to see it go out."

    Attempting to stretch a brand beyond its established consumer perceptions, then, could be akin to lighting that fire with green logs. Witness Virgin, emboldened by its step from records into airlines, wandering off into the quicksand of soft drinks and trains. Or Marks and Spencer, struggling to get back into shape after St Michael was stretched from clothing into financial services, food and furnishings.

    Steve Saxty, automotive practice leader at the FutureBrand consultancy, says that while these are cautionary examples, the risk is even greater for carmakers. "The investment is higher, not just in financial terms up front, but also the long term pay-off. None of the 'new' or stretched brands will see effective returns inside the first model cycle. This implies that it is better to concentrate on servicing the core brand first - as Mercedes has done - before branching out."

    According to industry consultant Mike Banks, a former marketing director at Fiat UK, carmakers stretching down are on safer ground than those stretching up. "I can't think of a case where a manufacturer has successfully moved a brand above a point where the consumer has identified it," said Banks. "Nissan, under Octav Botnar (the colourful boss of the UK import business until Nissan took control of its own distribution), established a reputation for a marque which was not very exciting but offered value for money.

    "Then a more orthodox management took over and attempted to move the brand more upmarket. Since then Nissan's UK market share has more than halved. Financial people think they can achieve economies of scale by pushing different market sector products through the same distribution channels, but it's not as simple as that, and there's always a danger of over ambitious market positioning." Steve Saxty tends to agree with the stretch down safety principle, but what really interests him is the emergence of 'new' brands at the top of a manufacturer's portfolio (VW/Bentley) and at the bottom (DaimlerChrysler/Smart, BMW/Mini).

    "It shows that core brands are no longer being stretched to their previous extent. The next A-class is more B-class, so Mercedes probably stretched down too far - A-class would have been better sold under Smart," said Saxty. Mike Banks believes that Volkswagen's clutch of brands is becoming reminiscent of badge engineering during the BL era in the 1970s. Matthew Draper, a director of marketing services company Total Research, hinted at the same thing on a personal level when he remarked: "I drive a Passat estate with Audi rings under the bonnet!"

    Chris Craft, Volkswagen head of marketing, brushed aside Banks' disquiet by pointing to growth in all the company's sectors. "With Golf the centre of gravity, we have stretched up and down. Our brand is not about overt status, it's a statement about product excellence," he said.

    Where experts do tend to agree is on the deftness of brand management by Ford. Commented Matthew Draper: "Granada and then Scorpio in the premium sector and models like the Cougar were clearly not cutting the mustard and Ford recognised that there were limits to the oval badge."

    Mike Banks added: "Ford were right to acquire a clutch of up-market brands and not overtly bring them under their brand." He also says the company's move to display these brands under one roof is acknowledgment of a long-overdue reform at point of sale. "Manufacturers' franchised showrooms are not related to consumer needs. The customer wants to see a choice of makes and models of a particular type within a particular price range."

    Two contrasting approaches to brand management are provided by BMW with Mini and Porsche with its impending Cayenne SUV.

    "BMW is perceived as a serious business car with good, solid values, whereas the Mini is a fun car, reminiscent of the swinging 60s," said Matthew Draper of Total Research. "Given these differences, it is probably wise of BMW to distance themselves from the Mini, brand-wise, in case the venture doesn't work out."

    Porsche, according to Steve Saxty, is especially interesting because it's seeking "to jump an entire brand segment". As he explained: "Porsche messaging for the Cayenne is aimed at people in their 40s who should have a conventional Porsche but family circumstances dictate otherwise. If this gets generally understood, then it will be cool to have a Cayenne as a smarter option to the Mercedes M-class or BMW X5.

    "The risk, however, is product weakness because of Porsche's inexperience in selling in that sector - it becomes tarnished in the old segment and less than credible in the new."

    According to Garel Rhys, no brand is strong enough now to surmount market forces. "The likes of BMW and Mercedes cannot charge the price premium against their rivals that they did 10 years ago. So they are trying to put in place cost structures that will allow them to survive whatever the market throws at them. In other words, survival will be based on economies of scale from consolidation and not on product differentiation."

    Mike Banks says that with price reform, brands that have earned a living out of a 1 per cent or so market share are not going to survive. "Their demise is probably 3 to 4 years away when the industry - having passed its amalgamation and rationalisation periods - goes through its consolidation phase," he commented.

    Steve Saxty agrees with the time forecast and cites such brands as Daewoo, Rover, Vauxhall and Mazda as particularly vulnerable. Matthew Draper of Total Research believed BMW were on to a loser from the outset with Rover. "It just has such a negative image of being middle-aged and middle class."

    Garel Rhys says a strong brand is built on heritage, huge financial resources and product differentiation. "Sometimes, two of these attributes can offset weakness in the third, but not often."

    Though manufacturers may be preoccupied with brand building and stretching, Rhys argues that the entire exercise offers no benefit for the consumer and is fraught with risk for manufacturers. "If vehicle buyers learn that car producers are attempting to increase their brand values, they should head for the hills. This is not being done for their benefit, no matter what arguments are used about stronger residual values.

    "For manufacturers, a strong brand will allow them to survive in a competitive market without having to cut prices to unviable levels. That is all. Attempts to exploit a brand will be the road to over-pricing, consumer resistance and ruin."

    Just Auto April 2001

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    Cash incentive for training women

    As a former motor mechanic who now heads Lincolnshire-based Vauxhall dealer Thurlby Motors, Chris Roberts recognises the attractions of career advancement and the training that’s needed to achieve it.

    So he had no hesitation in signing up to a government scheme for helping women in the industry to improve their promotion prospects. Five of Thurlby’s 22 female employees enrolled on the Women & Work programme last year and a further seven have joined the latest phase. Among them are human resources manager Tracy Barker and HR administrator/training co-ordinator Emma Scholefield.

    See archive for rest of story

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    Tony's magic moment

    Dressed in a black cloak and top hat and with a wave of his magician’s wand, Tony Ball revealed the Mini to the motoring world on Aug 26, 1959, with the theme ‘wizardry on wheels’. But it was not just the car, emerging from a giant top hat, that astonished the audience at BMC’s factory in Longbridge, Birmingham. To demonstrate just how much could be packed into such a small space, Ball also conjured up three men, two women (one of whom was his wife with their infant son), two dogs and an assortment of luggage.

    At just 23, it was his first attempt at taking car launches “from a traditional white sheet unveil to industrial theatre”. His budget was £500, compared with the £1m he was handed just over 20 years later to organise the launch of the Vauxhall Astra.

    Motor Industry Magazine

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      Free display advertising with vehicle livery

    Commercial fleet liveries have been described as ‘mobile billboards’, but with a major advantage over the static ones – they don’t incur rental costs if they’re used to promote the operator’s business.

    And with graphics becoming ever more imaginative, along with developments in application technology, livery can make a persuasive case as a key ingredient in a company’s marketing mix.

    “Though more of the marketing budgets are being allocated to websites, livery offers 24/7 advertising at relatively low cost,” said Rebecca Dack, marketing manager of Signs Express.

    Results from an independent survey commissioned by Signs Express last year among1,000 small and medium-sized businesses showed that nearly all considered livery an ideal platform for making “a good impression”, with 78 per cent saying that signs, graphics and display were an important part of their marketing activity.

    3M says that livery is one of the most effective ‘cost per impression’ advertising platforms, viewable to more than 3,000 people a day, rising to 70,000 in major cities.

    Extract from Commercial Fleet magazine Nov 2015

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      'Detention' time for speeders

    Someone quipped that it was like being called into the headmaster’s study for detention.  But this was no laughing matter as we waited outside the hotel conference room waiting to be ‘signed in’.  This meant producing our driving licences, which ranged from the newer versions with photo IDs to my tatty 20-year-old specimen held together with Sellotape.

    The state of licences reflected the age spread of the group – mid 20s to early 70s. Twenty three of us in all, including eight women. But we all had something in common – exceeding the speed limit. Not by a wide enough margin to automatically incur a £60 fine and three points, or worse. Instead, we had the option of attending a Speed Awareness Course. With an attendance fee of £85, it was more costly, but the carrot was that we would be let off the three-points. As one of my fellow wrongdoers pointed out: “It’s a no brainer, isn’t it.”   

    The rules were strict. Anyone turning up late would forfeit their £85 and apart from ‘comfort calls’ and a 15 minute tea break, everyone had to stay for the entire four-hour session. We were warned that anyone ‘standing in’ for the real culprit risked a hefty fine and possibly prison and asked to switch off our mobiles. Not just for the usual reason of call interruptions, though. As Richard, one of our ‘tutors’, explained: “We have quite a number of well-known people turning up at these sessions. One was a footballer who was not best pleased someone used a video phone and put him on You Tube.”

    Rules over, we were each asked to name the location where we had been ‘caught’ and the amount of excess speed. Most were in Hertfordshire – venue for the session was the Comet Hotel in Hatfield – with the odd one or two nabbed further afield. For me, it was in Suffolk while on holiday, where a mobile camera noted that I was doing 35mph in a 30mph limit along the A12.

    This exchange of information was a chance to break the ice and for some to volunteer their occupations, ranging from a retired teacher to a psychotherapist. Graham, the other tutor, pointed out that our session looked like being a good deal friendlier than the morning one. “Perhaps it’s because of the presence of the ladies this afternoon – an all-male audience is inclined to be more hostile.”

    Added Richard: “You get some people coming here with a truculent attitude – ‘I’ve been driving for 40 years and there’s nothing you can teach me...’. The purpose of these sessions is not to give someone the opportunity to kick off. We’re not here to have rows and we’re not here to lecture you. We welcome constructive feedback and hopefully you’ll leave having learned something.”

    Next came the debunking of the belief that the main purpose of speed cameras is to generate cash rather than help improve road safety. “Before any camera can be installed, there has to be evidence that its location has been the scene of eight deaths or serious injury,” said Richard.  “So, in cases of fatality,  you might say that each one serves as a metal memorial.”

    Neither was it necessarily the case that speed cameras were the automatic default in high-risk spots. Graham cited one road near a college with accidents involving students, many from overseas. Looking at the evidence of excess speeding, the local authority calculated that just one camera would generate more than £1m in fines, but instead it decided to ‘re-engineer’ the road with chicanes and humps.

    There were a couple of ‘true or false’ quizzes, which highlighted our woeful ignorance of The Highway Coded, and an exercise that had us all fooled. It featured a diagram of a main road with several junctions. Estimates of speed restriction ranged from 20mph to 50mph until Richard pointed out that it was derestricted because there was no ‘street furniture’ – street lamps and restriction signs. That took us further into the subject of signage and helped us to understand the reasoning behind so much apparent ‘clutter’.

    Recognise this driver habit pointed out by Graham? “Typically, you won’t adjust your speed until you’re past a restricted sign, but will start to increase your speed well before you see the derestricted one. It’s a behavioural pattern – oh, no, I’ve got to slow down...goody, I can start to increase my speed again.”

    One inevitable question from the audience: Were there any instances where speeding could be justified – an urgent call to say that a loved one had been seriously injured in an accident, for example? “Yes, I can sympathise with this, it’s highly emotional, but anyone in this situation risks harming someone else,” said Graham.

    To illustrate his point, there were a couple of gruesome videos and statistics indicating a 1% fatality rate among pedestrians hit at 20mph, compared to 31% at 40mph. Hitting a pedestrian was  described as “a bag of skin, bone and tissue, mostly containing water, coming up against a ton and half of metal and plastic – no contest”.

    And what about driver/passenger injuries? Despite advances in car safety design, force of impact is  likely to scramble our brain against the skull, or slam our internal organs against the rib cage. “A lot of dead victims don’t look that seriously injured – it’s what happens inside that’s caused the damage, in many cases a ruptured aorta,” said Graham.

    With the government deciding to retain the current MoT system, it was a timely opportunity for Richard to point out that 97% of accidents were down to driver error. “The MoT helps ensure that vehicles are mechanically sound – but there’s no three-year scheme for testing the drivers.”

     And the lesson we were asked to take home with us? It’s summed up in the acronym COAST – concentration, observation, anticipation, space and time.

    Judging by the warm reception given to Richard and Graham at the close, it’s a lesson most of us will bear in mind. Except for one potential recidivist who was overheard saying: “I was caught because my speed detector was switched off. Next time, I’ll make sure it’s on.”

    MSN cars/features

     

     'Spot the badge' on these telly favourites

    Channel 5's long running series The Hotel Inspector includes a sideshow. As well as watching its formidable presenter Alex Polizzi trying to rescue some hapless hotel owner from the brink of bankruptcy, car enthusiasts are counting the number of times she is seen driving an Audi A5.

    Shots of the four overlapping rings on the bonnet and steering wheel boss are so prevalent that it's prompted comment on the Pistonheads website, with one viewer calling it 'blatant product placement'.

    Among other contenders in this pastime of badge spotting is another Channel 5 series, Superior Interiors, with presenter Kelly Hoppen driving a BMW X1.

    Though the Pistonheads contributor may be right in sentiment, the appearances of BMW and Audi do not fall within the category of product placement - where suppliers pay for the privilege of publicity - but take the cheaper route of prop supply. 

    "When a car's badge is shown on a TV programme, it's rarely by accident," says Jon Zammett, Audi's public relations chief. "We are always looking for appropriate opportunities to place our models to give them added exposure." 

    "If the context is appropriate, we are happy to loan vehicles," confirms Gavin Ward, BMW's media relations manager. "We would get an idea from the programme script of what is acceptable. We wouldn't push for an opening shot of a BMW - it would be too in-your-face."

    Carmakers, especially those in the premium sector, say they are unlikely to take advantage of product placement following the relaxation of Ofcom regulations in this area.

    "We would not consider a paid-for offer because there is no need," said Ward. "Our cars are desirable, so producers want them to feature in their programmes."

    No takers for Corrie?

    Though Coronation Street now has a Nationwide-branded ATM in the programme's corner shop, word on the street is that approaches to car manufacturers for a product placement deal linked to Steve McDonald's Street Cars taxi firm have so far failed to attract any takers. 

    For lifestyle programmes like Superior Interiors, BMW is only too pleased to see Kelly Hoppen driving one of its X1s on extended loan. And it's win-win for both the manufacturer and the programme's producers.

    As Liza Read, executive director at BRANDirector Entertainment, the agency which secured the deal, explains: "We save the production company a significant amount of money by not having to hire a car for six months or so."

    BMW may not have been so happy to see another of its models, an X5, featured in a recent drama, Top Boy, about drugs gangs on a London housing estate. "The registration plate showed that it was not a new vehicle - it's something we have no control over," says Read.

    Sarah Chapman, Audi's communications manager, pointed out that prop supply is not, in its strictest sense, a free deal. "There's the car's depreciation to take into account during a long-running series like the Hotel Inspector." 

    One agency specialising in prop supply believes Ofcom's relaxation of the rules is unlikely to see a rush towards paid for placement. Sarah Curran, business development director at New Media Group, pointed out that as part of the concession the regulator stimulates that there should be no 'undue' brand prominence.

    "But this only applies to paid-for placement - not to free supply, so the latter is actually a more appealing proposition for suppliers, especially as it extends their presence to the BBC where product placement is still forbidden.

    "Prop supply can be arranged at a third of the cost of product replacement," added Curran. "In the US, which has always had product placement, 80% of the deals are still to do with free prop supply."

    However, Liza Read at BRANDirector says paid-for placement has its attractions. "It's not just about on-screen time, but the spin-offs that companies can use in their marketing campaigns. For example, in the case of Superior Interiors there could be a website video link inviting viewers to test drive an X1."

    Curran believes that there is no conflict between embedding popular brands in TV programmes while maintaining another Ofcom demand for production integrity.

    "Cars and IT equipment like mobile phones and computers are what we call 'hero' props that help push along story lines and illustrate the real world. Fictitious brands - like the lager they serve in EastEnders - jar with the audience."

    It's a view supported by a YouGov poll in July where 46% of respondents said that having real products in TV programmes made for more realism.

    Liza Read describes car props as a short cut to character and plot. "Contrast someone getting out of an Aston Martin and heading for Harrods with a harassed looking mum carrying shopping and getting into a car with child seats." 

    On the BBC beat

    While commercial channels may have an easy ride with car placement, the BBC has to be more wary. What Audi's Jon Zammett describes as 'action cars' are depicted on the Beeb's spy series Spooks, with the appearance of badges ranging from Audi and Mercedes to Lexus and Saab.

    But another brand on the Spooks' car list, Volvo, was recently seen straying from entertainment into the more serious world of current affairs. In an edition of Panorama, Cops Behaving Badly, the Volvo driven by reporter Richard Bilton was clearly identified with two front shots and one wheel badge shot. Incidentally, in another programme, Bilton was holding a MacBook Pro.

    "If we need a vehicle in our programmes, we use standard hire cars, but on the final day of filming Cops Behaving Badly a car hire firm was unable to supply the car we had booked," said a BBC spokesman.

    "For continuity purposes, we needed the same type and colour of vehicle used in the rest of the programme and in order to avoid re-scheduling filming - and incurring extra costs that would involve - we were able to source a vehicle from a local dealership. It was a one-off arrangement made in exceptional circumstances.

    "Regarding the MacBook, we blanked out the fluorescent logos but it is not always practical to completely disguise what brand an object is."

    Sarah Curran summed up the BBC's predicament by commenting: "You can get a viewer complaining about someone holding a can of Guinness on one of its programmes while ignoring the fact that most of its chat shows feature guests plugging their latest DVD, film or book."

    MSN Cars

    *****

    Caution over commission

    Insurance add-ons, ranging from MoT repair cover to paint protection, generate significant income and help customer retention, but one provider has a word of caution over commission.

     Combine the bone-cutting margins on new cars with the continuing erosion of service and repair work to the independents, and it’s little wonder that the franchised sector looks upon F&I as a vital revenue stream.

    But that stream could turn choppy. With commission-driven practices now embedded in retail generally, regulators are taking a renewed interest in products which may not be suitable for the consumer, but generate hefty bonuses for the sellers.

    Though banking is an obvious target, Duncan McClure Fisher, managing director of Warranty Direct, said the regulators’ aim could affect any business involved with financial services. “Some (motor) dealers can make quite chunky profits on insurance, but they have to be careful. The way things are going, you can’t sell products which are viewed to have too big a margin.”

    His cautionary words follow a pledge by Martin Wheatley, head of the newly formed Financial Conduct Authority, to “change the culture of viewing consumers simply as sales targets”. Though not opposed to commission-based selling in principle, Wheatley said:  “We will look at how firms make their money, how they pay their staff and whether they are designing and selling products with customers in mind.

    “This is a change from the traditional regulatory model which involved setting standards and then looking back at what firms have done.”

    Though commission revenue plays a significant part in most insurance offerings, notably extended warranty, among the carmakers’ retail networks, it is arguably of less importance than the product itself when it comes to generating business for the workshops and aiding customer retention.

    As the name implies, most of Warranty Direct’s deals are through car owners, but McClure Fisher points out that 60-70% of the company’s repair claims, totalling around £1m a month, are directed through franchised workshops.

    Warranty Direct is also seeking to extend its ‘direct’ presence in the franchised sector, currently around 7%, with a ‘white label’ version of its extended warranty. “Our proposition is intended to address the challenge of manufacturers not knowing who the third and fourth owners of their product are," said McClure Fisher. "With our marketing and database resources, we are saying ‘let us promote a manufacturer direct warranty to those drivers - we pay you commission and you get repeat business on servicing and repairs’.”

    Extended warranty and GAP generally form the core of dealer insurance offerings from MapFre Abraxas, but it’s been talking to partners about options to expand their portfolio.

    “Products like tyre and alloy cover and MoT insurance are top of the list and they have the added benefit of helping to support customer retention efforts,” said Steve Burgess, head of new business. “If a customer has these additional products and needs to make a claim then their first port of call is the supplying dealer which, as a minimum, is another opportunity for dealers to talk to a customer about other current offers.” 

    But with F&I expected to contribute £2.5m to its bottom line this year, Vauxhall and Chevrolet dealer Drive Motor Retail is selective about these products. As managing director Paul Manning explains: “Offer more than three and we find the customer switches off.” GAP and warranty come high on the list, but Manning said it was difficult to put options such as key insurance or MoT cover in front of the customer.

    However, Manning added that the approach would vary depending on the franchise represented. Dealers selling expensive, prestige brands may have more success with paint and alloy wheel cover than mainstream franchises.

    David Johnson, group finance and insurance manager with Perrys, said: “What you need to put in front of the customer is a sensible portfolio, not an exhaustive list. The sales procedure is protracted enough as it is. The customer can be left feeling fed up with the whole process.”

    Eric Stone, business development director of the WMS Group, reinforces the point that add-ons not only improve profits and cashflow, but also help customer retention.

    "Historically, there have been many commoditised products that could only draw revenue at the point-of-sale, whereas our business has successfully been built on providing not only front-end revenue but also helping with workshop absorption,” said Stone.

    He reported that since the start of 2012 WMS had seen a 13% uplift in the sale of MoT insurance, with businesses recognising that such products can almost guarantee to bring the customer back the following year. “These products carry a range of profit-making opportunities at the point of sale, repair work and again at renewal.

    “Based on the RRP of just £49 for 12 months, customers can rest assured that their vehicle will be covered against MoT failures (including lighting equipment, steering, suspension, brakes, seats and much more) up to a claim limit of £750. MoT insurance goes hand in hand with a comprehensive warranty, and the two products combined will provide upmost peace of mind to buyers – and repeat profitability for dealerships.”

    Stone said that tyre and alloy wheel insurance – introduced by WMS five years ago - was proving to be another appealing offer, building value in the mind of the customer (as well as the sales executive), and available as either stand-alone or combined. “We have recently made several improvements at no additional premium, and cover now includes unlimited tyre repairs/replacements during the three-year duration, and wheel replacement costs up to the individual claim limit if they become damaged beyond repair.

    “For franchised dealers, it is not uncommon to see wheel and tyre penetrations in excess of 20%, with this figure rising to 40% in specialist or luxury franchises. Profit margins are obviously dependent upon the RRP, but with a total customer value of £2,500 and an RRP of just £299 for three years cover, dealers should expect a post-tax margin of circa £150 per sale.

    “Refurbishment of wheels and the replacement/repair work on tyres can be sent back to the supplying dealer to provide additional revenue during the three year cover.”

    Warranty Direct used to offer MoT insurance, but this is now included in its extended warranty. “Leaking shock absorbers, for example, are covered, but not items like chipped registration plates or bulb replacement,” said McClure Fisher. He added that sales penetration of products like GAP and paint protection tended to be better than lower margin options such as extended warranty.

    Nick Jones, group finance manager at Vauxhall dealer Greenhous, said insurance products typically add 10-15% as a percentage of profit to each used car.

    “We are looking at MoT insurance, it’s something Vauxhall is keen to get involved with,” he said. “We offer our Protection Pack with a leaflet explaining the insurance options, including ValueGuard for GAP, along with the Network Q extended warranty.

    “We stopped the smart repairs option because of lack of demand, but drill down on GAP because it’s seen as vital protection for the customer, followed by Diamondbrite (paint protection) and warranty."

    Perrys’ David Johnson said the group separated regulated products like GAP from the non-regulated. Two thirds of the company's outlets had a business manager, with satellites featuring a sales manager, controller and two supervisors. "Offers like MoT cover would not typically be offered at point of sale, but they may be included in the future," he said.

    AM magazine

     

    Marketing: 'Slicing the cucumber'

    Social media pages have become as de rigueur as websites for motor retail and it’s not just to appear cool. They’re recognised as a relatively cheap ingredient in the marketing mix, with options to reach a mass or closely targeted audience.

    Matt Brown, marketing director of Essex Auto Group, cited a month-long “Sweet 16” new plate promotion through Facebook. “It was aimed at 17 to 64-year-olds within a 20km reach of our dealerships, giving us around 230,000 prospects for just £155,” said Brown. “If nothing else, it helps build the brand.”

    Brown compared marketing segmentation to a cucumber – “however thin you want to slice it, customer gender, customer age or model age, last time we saw the vehicle, and so on”. 

    For an invitation to the new Ford Edge preview model, Essex Auto excluded owners of models like Ka and Fiesta and anyone who had bought a car within the last 12 months. From that it whittled down the list to owners of two to five-year-old cars with last date in the workshop or any other form of contact.  “Rather than spend £20,000 on a blanket direct mail campaign, we wanted the lowest hanging fruit, in this case 396 good quality people coming in the showroom,” said Brown.

    Lee Manning, digital marketing manager with Perrys, says the company’s marketing strategy relies heavily on segmentation. “Not only does it allow us to target the exact people who will be relevant to our promotions - it also helps protect our database. There’s nothing worse than giving a retailer permission to contact, only for them to abuse this by bombarding you with offers that are completely irrelevant.

    One “great success” is the Peugeot Just Add Fuel Telematics offer, using Facebook to target 18-year-olds who have just passed their driving test and would benefit from not having to pay huge insurance premiums. Perrys also took advantage of the platform’s data to target parents who may be helping fund a car purchase or, at the very least, advising on car choice.  

    Most favoured marketing channel at Think Ford is Sky AdSmart where different ads can be shown to different households watching the same programme. Households can be selected on factors such as age, location and life style, with information sourced through Sky’s customer data and profiler agencies such as Experian. “We have been using AdSmart, targeting specific postcodes and tweaking it with (Experian’s) Mosaic profiling,” said Think Ford’s marketing manager Heather Findlater. “Each campaign gets better. Website traffic goes through the roof and then drops afterwards. Our next one is primarily for used cars and, like previous campaigns, we take out categories that didn’t respond and focus on those that did. It’s not an exact science, but Sky is in the process of refining its stats.”

    AdSmart now accounts for most of Think Ford’s marketing budget, followed by pay-per-click online. 

    Extract from AM magazine April 2016

     ***

    Those were the days my friend


    When I last met Bob (not his real name - he wishes to remain anonymous) for a reunion drink, we ended up chorusing: 'We had the best of it.' The days when PC was a copper's rank, passive smoking was a no-cost alternative to a packet of Woodbines and before women wore tights.

    We both left secondary school and began as junior reporters in the same newspaper group - Bob on a weekly in Peterborough and me on another weekly in Whittlesey, a market town seven miles away. I swear I got the job because the owner, a charming old gentleman by the name of Algernon Sharman, gave me some dictation which included 'building site' from a speech by Stanley Baldwin. After noting that I had spelt 'site' correctly, he took me on a terrifying 80mph drive in his Daimler along Fenland roads from head office back to Peterborough, my hometown.

    So Whittlesey is where I learnt my trade. Bike rounds to pubs for darts results, the football team managers for match reports and the Women's Institute secretary, whose bosom was a distraction while I dutifully noted that 'tea was served by Mesdames...' Names spelt correctly was always more important than any real news coverage - standing outside churches to compile lists of funeral mourners, I found myself parroting: 'Is that Brown without an E, Smith without a Y?'

    As for all those wedding reports, I have two abiding memories. No, not Abide with me, but Fight the good fight chosen by one couple, with another bride describing part of her outfit as 'a Dutch cap trimmed with lace'.

    Then it was on to Peterborough to join Bob and to discover that I lacked an instinct essential to any reporter - er, news sense. It came during a council meeting when a council house tenant asked for a move to another property with a bigger drive to accommodate his two cars - this at a time when one car per household was a rarity. I was astonished when my report ended up as a page top in a couple of the tabloids, courtesy of ex-Mirror reporter turned Peterborough-based freelance, Rex Needle.

    Meanwhile, Bob distinguished himself with a report about price inflation in pre-decimalisation days with a quote from a local butcher: 'Yes, I've had to put my meat up a few coppers.' Bob also doubled as the entertainment critic and, after seeing an up and coming group at the Embassy Theatre, pronounced them 'mediocre'. Perhaps The Beatles were having an off night. Once, when Bob was on holiday, I had to cover an am-dram production of West Side Story. Highly entertaining, but for all the wrong reasons. It took the male lead three attempts to scale a chain link fence before the Jets/Sharks fight scene and the poor fellow also had a lisp, which resulted in an unusual rendering of the song 'Maria'.

    From Peterborough, it was on to the Bristol Evening Post for 18 months, and then to the Hitchin and Luton offices of the Hemel Hempstead-based Evening Post, Thomson training ground for a clutch of graduate trainees who went on to make names for themselves, including Anne McElvoy, Alan Hamilton, Tony Holden and David Blundy.

    I made a name for myself by leaving Luton magistrates' court one lunch time with a tremendous thirst, ignoring all the police cars outside a local bank, and next day discovering that it had been the target of one of the biggest safe deposit box raids of all time. No surprise that I lost my stripe as crime correspondent, but not before I had the chance to mingle with Fleet Street's finest covering the Muriel McKay abduction and murder story. Jimmy Nicholson, if you happen to be reading this, you never did return the wellingtons I lent you for tramping round the fields of Stocking Pelham, scene of the McKay crime. Rotter.

    A couple of other anecdotes during my time at the Evening Post: One of the junior reporters at the Hitchin office lost a contact lens, which I found in a waste paper basket. 'Thanks,' said the grateful junior, I owe you one.' Well, John Blake, now head of the eponymous publishing house, it so happens that I've just completed what I believe is a blockbusting novel...

    And Irene Gibb, before your move to the Daily Mail, do you recall the time you picked me up one morning in what appeared to be the district office pool car, a green Vauxhall Viva? I say 'appeared' because this vehicle was in pristine condition. Intrigued, I opened the glove box and found a Bible. Now bear in mind that this was in the days when car anti-theft devices were less sophisticated than today. Turns out that there were two green Vivas left overnight in Luton's multi-storey car park and the ignition key of the pool car just happened to fit the other, belonging to a church minister.

    Then I hit Fleet Street. It was more of a plop, really, during the dying days of the IPC Sun doing the worst job possible for someone with no news sense, copy tasting. It was my task to condense any agency copy I thought merited inclusion on the morning news schedule into a couple of sentences. News editor Barrie Harding, the former Mirror bureau man in New York, would invariably look at my contributions while sucking on a toothpick (having just given up his 60 a day fag habit) and spike them.

    I still cringe at the recollection of newsdesk colleague Bill Newman explaining the rudiments of the job on my first day. 'Oh, I'll soon pick that up,' I responded. His expression was something along the lines of 'What arrogant young prick have we got here, then?'

    Someone arrogant - and stupid - enough to commandeer editor Dickie Dinsdale's chauffeur driven car to take me to the station at the end of one night shift. That really marked my early departure ticket. But not before I accumulated some notable memories of characters and events. Science/medical correspondent Leslie Toulson, with his accordion playing at the Cross Keys, opposite the Sun offices in Covent Garden. A floppy haired reporter with owl glasses and a wonky eye, but his other eye was good enough to see him make it into the media stratosphere: chap by the name of Les Hinton. Aviation correspondent Brian Woosey, who gave me my first experience of nightclub hostesses - thanks for putting my excesses on your exes, Brian. Feature writer Jon Akass, whose one line intro on the investiture of the Prince of Wales - 'The lad did well' - would have been envied by Ernest Hemingway.

    But a callow youth having a crown placed on his head by Mummy was insignificant compared with two other events during my newsdesk shifts. One was the first bomb attack in Northern Ireland, with managing editor John Graham later signing up Westminster's youngest MP, Republican activist Bernadette Devlin, as columnist. The second, for which I still have the PA 'flash', was the Apollo moon landing, which a gang of us watched on a flickering TV screen in the private quarters of Annie, landlady of the Cross Keys.

    From the Sun, it was on to a brief spell at the Daily Sketch as a reporter, where the only incident I recall was being told to f*** off by Foreign Secretary George Brown during a doorstepping assignment, before I left newspapers for the more leisurely pastures of business magazines.

    Ironically, it was during this time that a story of mine - an exclusive interview with union boss Hugh Scanlon on wage bargaining - made a Sun splash. I didn't get paid for that, but I've since made some drinking money from the occasional story: the Punch and Judy man who whacked a local farmer for 'goosing' him during his act; Bishop Desmond Tutu being let off a parking ticket by an admiring traffic warden; and a man at my local pub who foiled a speeding fine after persuading police that the real culprit was someone driving around in an identical car using his number plate.

    Nothing to rank as scoop of the year, but they serve to reassure me that perhaps I do have some news sense after all...

    Ranters' website 2011

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