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Dealers fear increased manufacturer control

A large majority of franchised dealers (88%) expect increasing manufacturer control of their businesses, according to the latest dealer attitude survey conducted by the National Franchise Dealers Association (NFDA).

Most dealers (78%) say retained margins on sales of new cars have fallen since last year, and more than half (53%) report “falling satisfaction” with vehicle distribution. The NFDA says there is “a sense of foreboding”, with dealers suspecting that “the good times might not last”.

Sue Robinson, NFDA director, points to positive attitudes among dealers, but with reservations.

“The survey shows the dealer/manufacturer partnership is still strong, and even improving in a number of areas, despite 2007’s seemingly unpredictable new car market,” she said.

“However, perhaps this volatility is feeding a sense of growing uncertainty, leading some dealers to feel that a negative change is just around the corner.”

One of the survey’s most important positives is that dealers feel manufacturers are now listening. “They need to keep listening, so doubts that dealers have can be allayed,” Robinson said.

In the survey, dealers are asked about topics, ranging from manufacturers’ warranties to the value of their franchise to them.

On average, 20% of dealers in each carmaker’s network responded. Lowest returns were for Renault dealers, at 9%, and Ford dealers, at 10%.

Audi heads the overall list with a score of 9.5, followed by Toyota (8.7) and Mini, last winter’s leader (now 8.5).

Suzuki, fourth with 8.3, continues to gain ground and other strong performers include Alfa Romeo. David Seward, Suzuki GB sales and marketing director, said: “We’re pleased with our showing which is in line with a well-established trend. More than 90% of our registrations are retail, which is why we value our network so highly.”

Volkswagen (8.3) is fifth and seems to have shaken off the rumblings of discontent heard from some of its dealers two years ago. It has Land Rover in hot pursuit.

Skoda has made further progress in the judgement of its franchise holders, rising to seventh (ahead of Mercedes-Benz and BMW among others), with a score of 7.9 (up from 7.3 last year).

Dougal Keith, owner of DM Keith, Leeds, and chairman of the east/north-east region of the Skoda business development group, says: “Skoda is one of the most engaged brands with its dealers because director Chris Craft regards communication with the network as one of the pillars of his long-term plan.”

Subaru remains at the foot of the list of the 32 brands surveyed. Its score has slipped from 3.4 to 3.0. One place higher is ChryslerJeep, which has dropped to 4.0 from last winter’s 6.4.

Arthur Fairley, media and public relations director at IM Group, the UK’s Subaru distributor, says: “The survey catches Subaru at its lowest point. We recently invited a group of dealers to see our new HQ and drive the new Impreza, and expect to sign nine or 10 of them by the end of the year.”

The analysis of worries about increasing manufacturer control reveals potential difficulties for GM UK.

Vauxhall dealers recorded the most dissatisfaction as a partner, and there was a “significant increase” in unhappiness expressed by the Chevrolet network.

BMW’s problems with its dealers over retained margins continue, and its network was joint first with Lexus in registering the most concern on this issue.

Fiat, Hyundai and Mitsu-bishi franchise holders express similar concerns.

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