Pressure builds on motor market

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The UK car industry is the most competitive in Europe. In the early Nineties when the rest of the European industry was struggling, manufacturers shifted their focus to the UK, only for the market to fall into recession.

The past two years have been disastrous for car manufacturers. A multitude of offers, promotions and financial incentives that led to the market being dubbed “the sale of the century” failed to lure consumers onto dealer forecourts.

A revolving fleet market, where companies swapped their fleets with increasing regularity, became the crutch manufacturers used to support their market share. But earlier this year even the fleet market was flagging.

However, since April confidence and sales have returned to the retail car market. Industry sources believe August sales of P-registration cars could top 500,000 – the highest since 1989. And the annual total could break the magical 2 million mark this year.

But manufacturers are paying a heavy price. It is no coincidence that the motor industry is the highest spending advertising sector in the UK. And spending is destined to break records for the fourth consecutive year to top 500m.

The combination of over-supply and rising marketing costs made it inevitable that something had to give. The return of “back-end loading”, a practice which involves pre-registering cars at the end of each month to artificially inflate total sales, shows the market has reached a critical stage.

“I am not saying that all the sales reported by our dealers at the end of the month have a buyer – that would not be true,” admits the marketing boss of one top ten manufacturer. “But we don’t go out and say we want this market share and the only way to get it is through back-end loading at the end of a month.” But somebody is.

The trade body representing car dealers estimates that as many as 100,000 cars, ten per cent of the market in the first six months of this year, could have been “sold” in this way. Some manufacturers, worried that the growing “nearly new” market is damaging new car sales, fear pre-registration is getting out of hand.

It is ironic that at a time when they are spending record amounts of money on the advertising and brand-building of their marques, manufacturers should indulge in a practice which can only undermine those efforts.

The reason is clear. Companies fear losing market share, individuals fear losing their jobs as a result of falling sales. And both fear that rivals will steal a lead through a new finance scheme or product launch.

Fear of over-blowing the market through practices such as back-end loading should be added to that list.

Cover Story, page 26

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