Vertu Motors chief executive Robert Forrester has insisted that his business is not making a switch to online car sales after a 360% rise in end-to-end digital transactions in 2020.
Speaking to AM following a trading update which showed the AM100 PLC’s board expects an adjusted profit before tax level “of around £23m” for the year ended February 28, 2021, Forrester was determined to reiterate the ongoing importance of its 146 dealership locations.
“Do not get carried away”, he said. “This is not a shift to online car sales. We have got some great new technology, SMS for signing documents and video live chat to communicate with customers, but these are simply tools to facilitate the sale.
“Online retailing will grow but, if you look at where people are buying, they are buying local and from people that they trust, where they have the ability to walk through the door and speak to someone in-person if they have an issue.
“Bristol Street Motors has been around for 100 years and we have been there for the customer. If you buy from us we are there to support your ownership experience, to service your car, and customers know that.”
Forrester said that he “didn’t give a monkeys” what proportion of Vertu’s cars would be sold on line in five- or 10-years’ time, stating that there was no strategy to prioritise online sales now in the future, despite the trading restrictions currently imposed as part of COVID-19 ‘Lockdown 3’.
He said “Ultimately, we want to build trust, build rapport and get the customer through the buying process.
“Price is important, but building value is the key thing and that comes through conversations with specialists. Has the customer got the right car for their needs, did they enjoy the buying process? They are the important things.”
Test drives and reopening
A keen believer in being seen around the Vertu dealership network, Forrester has been travelling across the UK to visit business throughout lockdown.
He told AM that he was not a believer that the leader of a business operating in 146 locations should be “issuing orders from their bedroom”.
But, while he is keen to maintain that personal contact, he is in no doubt that vehicle test drives should not be conducted right now, suggesting they go against Government guidance on COVID-safe sales practices, despite continued assertions that they remain ‘legal’.
“When you have certain people re-branding test drives as ‘personal vehicle loans’, that tells you all you need to know,” he said.
“You’re essentially jumping through hoops to circumvent the Government guidance at that point and we will not do that.
“Generally, I don’t think the sector has taken steps that have put sales ahead of customer safety.”
While Forrester said that he would not be lobbying to reopen car showrooms ahead of the planned April 12 reopening of non-essential retail in England, leaving that to the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA) and Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), he said that such a step would be “lovely”.
‘No more lockdowns’
However, he added that he would sooner gain reassurance that the UK would be subject to no more COVID-19 lockdowns in future.
He said: “More important for myself is that we have cast iron reassurance that we won’t go down this lockdown route again, if we had a big flu winter or a climate change emergency, for example.
“Using lockdowns is dangerous in my opinion and the UK will suffer for many years to come in my opinion.”
Forrester said that he hoped the UK Government would start to exercise prudence in a bid to strengthen the national finances sooner rather than later once the UK returns to business.
On Wednesday (March 3), Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, set out his Budget 2021 plan, announcing a rise in corporation tax in 2023 among actions to revive the economy and claw back the UK’s COVID-19 debts.
Following publication of the SMMT’s new car registrations data for February yesterday, chief executive, Mike Hawes, he once again called for showrooms to be allowed to reopen “as soon as possible” to allow the automotive sector to begin to recover the £23 billion loss from the past year.
The SMMT suggested that car dealers should be braced for “a third, successive dismal new plate month” in March after COVID-19 ‘Lockdown 3’ delivered another 35.5% decline to the UK’s new car registrations last month.