It's not all roses in the used car market


Written by: Philip Nothard

  • Private sector new car registrations not in line with year-to-date growth.
  • Margins under pressure for the fourth time in six months. 
  • A more diverse and complex market for both dealers and consumers.

Half way through the year it is becoming apparent that not everything in the retail car market is as rosy as the figures would suggest on the surface.

The signs of this can be seen in both the new and used car retail markets. Turning to new car registrations first, the headlines have all been about records tumbling. April (the most recent results at the time of writing) saw another increase of 5.1%, making it not only the 38th consecutive month of growth but the highest April figure since 2005. Overall we have seen a 6.4% year-to-date increase against the same period 2014.

But what does all of this actually mean for the dealers? 

There is some debate over the lagging performance of private new car retail sales and questions being asked around why the increase here has only been 1.4% year-to-date. Some are identifying a growing number of customers opting out of company car schemes.  Initially this boosted retail sales because PCP was so often the preferred route into a private car. But now many of these customers are opting for a PCH scheme and these cars are, of course, being recorded as business registrations.

There is also a growing issue for dealers relating to extended lead times for new vehicles. My colleague Robert Hester, who oversees short-term residual forecasting at CAP, has this to say on the subject.

“With the continuing pressure from manufacturers for year-on-year increases in volumes there has been a noticeable shift in the length of time customers are having to wait for new cars. The days of 'off the shelf' cars are pretty much gone, and it isn't unusual for customers who want to individualise their car to have to wait for several months before taking delivery of their new car.

“Lead times vary considerably, with 12-14 weeks being quite common, and in some cases we hear of buyers having to wait as long as 12 months. This often leads to a situation where dealers are having to negotiate on a part exchange value for several months in advance. The responsibility for reliably assessing a part exchange value that far ahead has been just another pressure on dealers”.

Indeed, such has been the pressure on dealers from this issue that CAP has begun forecasting residual values from 0 to 12 months, which will have been announced by the time of this feature’s publication. 

More pressure is mounting on dealers in the used car market, directly stemming from all of this new car activity. Perhaps the strongest is the impact of margin compression – especially in the case of cars up to one year old. I hear horror stories around the dealer network every day about new cars which can be taxed and put on the road cheaper than an equivalent used car. Interestingly this is beginning to lead to a more cautious approach to tactical and pre-registration deals than the old ‘lemming-like’ rush to unquestioningly meet manufacturer targets.  

I won’t usually dwell too much on the subject of pre-registrations because my view is that transparency is more important than curbing the practice. CAP stands apart from all those commentators who think pre-reg activity is somehow wrong in itself. But I do share dealers’ concerns about the situations that arise when one tranche of heavily supported new car deals is superseded by even greater support for the following registration month. We cannot overlook the fact that September is fast approaching and many of the current cars could well still be unsold by then.

The other headache is the relentless rise of repair costs and when you take both these issues into account, there are profound effects on margins.

My own research among dealers confirms that few dealers are succeeding in preserving, let alone increasing, their margins on used car sales.

With the reduction in the number of quality repair centres, demand is gradually outstripping preparation capacity – leading to rising costs. This reduction is also leading to an increase in transportation and general logistics costs.  

Whatever the route to market chosen by manufacturers, the pressure is consistently felt by dealers across all their sales channels. I am aware of increasingly fractious conversations between dealers and manufacturers over targets relative to market territory and aspirations around market share. There is no sign of this settling into a sustainable patter any time soon. 

As I have written in these pages before, the dealers who will thrive best in this environment will inevitably be those with the best understanding of every nuance of their customers’ own needs and a deep understanding of what works best in their own individual sites.