Last spring Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Cars and said: “We want to be the biggest car dealership in the country.”
Rumours of the early demise of Virgin Cars are probably wishful thinking among dealers but they have no intention of allowing Sir Richard or any other dotcom newcomer to take over the market.
Perhaps the lesson of aftersales – a sector dealers allowed specialists to share – has been learned. That was certainly the message at Automotive Management's Digital Dealer Fair where there was tough-talking from the franchised sector.
During two days of seminars, dealers and dotcom executives gave their views of motor retailing in the next few years. A year ago, the electronic retailers were dismissive of the “dinosaurs” who ran old-fashioned dealerships. Now the talk is of integration.
Several leading dealer groups have invested in their own websites where customers can gather information before visiting a dealership. Or, in some cases, buy online.
Now Virgin Cars and OneSwoop are hunting for retail partners because they have worked out what retail buyers want.
Even so, OneSwoop marketing manager Dowshan Humzah, speaking at the conference, was talking up the growth of online sales. He forecast the 19,000 last year would become 53,000 in 2001, 281,000 in 2003 and 603,000 in 2005. He thought the final forecast was “conservative”.
Lindsay Levin, Whites Group chief executive, must have voiced the view of many dealers when she told delegates: “While pure internet car retailers have a shaky future, it does not mean the internet is not an important piece of the future retailing mix.”
Mrs Levin urged manufacturers not to be propelled “by dotcom hype” into radical moves to reshape the sales channel.
Keith Hartrick, CD Bramall group managing director, put the case at the conference for the way traditional car retailers can take advantage of the internet.
“As a retail dealer group we can offer the online buyer everything they want,” he said. “We can offer a seamless process, whether the customer buys via the internet or through the showroom.”
Mr Hartrick said CD Bramall had generated between 80-100 additional sales a month by linking all the group's used car stock so customers at any outlet could see everything available.
This approach gives large groups a further advantage over individual dealerships or small groups whose stocks are limited.
Mr Hartrick spotlighted how internet-enthusiasts were being put in their place at dealerships. Often, an outlet's 'internet champion' was an administrator rather than a member of the sales staff.
The main task was to take photographs, correctly describe the cars and display the information in the right place on the group's website.
This does not require advanced IT skills. But it does mean that retail customers, who are gaining enthusiasm for car browsing on websites, will be a step closer to visiting a CD Bramall dealership.