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Be proactive to stay ahead of the game

In a market which continues to be extremely difficult it is easy to lose sight that some people are still enjoying considerable success.

But the market certainly has changed. At one time you would have a guy specialising in cars up to £5,000 and he would make a good living out of buying and retailing small hatchbacks. Now the market is changing so rapidly that scenario is becoming rarer and rarer.

Today the people enjoying most success are those who are moving with the market and generally being more proactive. These are the people who do not make the mistake of putting all their eggs in one basket and are getting results this year when everyone else struggles.

If we look back over 1999, the year started for a lot of people in the same way. They had plenty of cars in their own particular market - the one they had known for years. Then suddenly they found they had been caught out. The market had changed.

When a used car market becomes as unpredictable as the UK has this year, one of the biggest issues has to be stocking and, in particular, buying policy. If you think you know your market that is when you might be in for a few nasty surprises - and it has happened to plenty of good operators this year. You need to look more and more closely at what is moving now - not last month or even last week - and what is sticking.

One trader friend of mine has learned this lesson well. He started the year sourcing cheap one-owner cars for main dealers. He knew everything about picking the little cherries which everyone could sell. But then he saw that pressure on the executive market was creating some very attractively priced cars, such as S-Class and 7 Series.

So he moved into this market - right from one end of the scale to the other - and he's having a brilliant time. The danger for the used car sales manager is that with so many other issues going on, keeping as close as necessary to the market itself can be a struggle. It is not enough now to maintain your immediate circle of contacts in order to know precisely what is going on everywhere because everywhere is not the same.

Another small dealer contact has been trading for 30 years on a pitch with 50 cars and he told me he has gone from selling 25 cars a month to five.

That is because he is trying to sell into the market he has been expert in for so long. He hasn't changed but the market has.

Big dealers in the area are sourcing the same cars for less money by buying in bulk and seriously undercutting him. The only way he will succeed is by moving into another niche. There are always opportunities - take the growing interest in grey and parallel imports. There is another opportunity - but like every market, it is not to be relied upon.

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