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Insight: Bentley and dealers in partnership

Think back a decade or so and the Bentley marque was the sporting choice of few luxury car buyers, except ageing captains of industry, life peers and middle-aged showbiz stars.

Since its purchase by Volkswagen Group in 1998, and the subsequent introduction of the Continental model range, the brand has become firmly installed on the shopping list of a new generation of consumers.

Continental’s modern styling and, by Bentley’s standards, modest £117,500 price tag, has attracted people to the brand. The challenge now is to retain them.

“We reckon we’re at about our peak for new cars in the UK,” says Geoff Dowding, managing director of Bentley’s European operations.

Registrations in 2006 hit 1,902 units, slightly down on 2005.

“We don’t plan for immediate growth over the next couple of years. We need a balance between building our place in the market and Bentley being an exclusive brand.”

Nevertheless, this will be the first full year of sales of the GTC convertible, the third member of the Continental family behind its Flying Spur saloon and GT coupé siblings. The GT’s launch three years ago signalled a nine-fold increase in Bentley’s sales, from 200 units to 1,900.

The pre-owned luxury car market is a huge opportunity for dealers, according to Dowding. He expects some owners to trade-in for the GTC this year, putting used GTs aged up to three years old back into the network. Dowding also notes that Continentals are being used more frequently than other Bentleys traditionally have been, covering 30,000 to 50,000 miles with one owner.

He says: “We find with our brand that used car ownership very often leads to new car sales over time, as people start their Bentley experience with a more affordable used car and progress to new.”

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Richard Gordon, regional director of Bentley’s UK operations, adds: “Aftersales is a key part of securing our business for the future; 80% of the customers we deal with are new.”

Bentley’s franchised network has expanded from 15 sales points to 22 in the last three years, during which more than £23m has been invested in new build and refurbished showrooms. In return for its dealers’ commitment, the carmaker promises a partnership approach to making sure they are profitable.

New model variants are currently rolling out every couple of years – the Arnage-based Brooklands coupé is launched in 2008 – ensuring sales departments have regular fresh products to tempt customers with.

The carmaker has also invested in technical support, and built up a CRM database and management team, which assists dealers in building on their links with customers. Marketing and media activity is targeted towards appropriate new groups, such as through invitations to golf days or a product experience dinner. Dealers are also encouraged to bring groups of customers to tour the Bentley factory at Crewe.

Dowding describes the dealer-carmaker relationship as very strong, adding: “When we needed our dealers in the lean years they were very loyal. We’re very loyal to them in return.”

He is happy with the mix of independents, small groups and plcs holding Bentley franchises. “Dealer profitability is key to us. That applies to aftersales and used car sales as well as new. Dealers can see that Bentley is a long-term player.”

The newcomer: Bentley Birmingham

Bentley Birmingham, which opened on December 5, 2006, is the newest dealership representing the premier marque and shares its retail space at Fort Dunlop with Lamborghini.

Last year the business, which is owned by Sytner, sold 100 new and 150 used cars generating a turnover of £28m.

Mark Hudson, general manager at Bentley Birmingham, says the target turnover for 2007 is £32m. He hopes to achieve this increase mainly through selling more used cars.

“Because Bentley keeps the number of cars available for the UK fairly steady, the number of Bentley’s we sell every year remains roughly the same,” he says. “However, we do hope to see a small increase in new car sales because we have a larger market place from our new location.”

The volume of aftersales and servicing handled by the dealership has also increased because one of the most popular cars, the Continental GT, is now three years old.

“Last year we sold 9,000 servicing hours from our five-bay workshop.

At our new site we have nine bays, so we hope to see an increase in this area, too,” says Hudson.

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