Currently reading: Industry analysis: post-lockdown car sales boost looking unlikely
Dealerships expect only a mild sales lift once they open their doors fully on 12 April

It doesn’t matter which way you cut it: the past year makes grim reading for the car industry. Whether you look at sales or manufacturing, the numbers are all down, with the ongoing effect of the coronavirus pandemic and the rolling programme of lockdowns and restrictions creating uncertainty for consumers and businesses alike. So it isn’t an understatement to say the full reopening of dealerships on 12 April can’t come soon enough.

How bad has it been? You don’t have to look far for an answer. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders estimates the industry as a whole suffered a staggering £23 billion loss in the year since prime minister Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown at the end of March 2020. As for sales, over the course of 2020 there were 1.6 million new car registrations, nearly a 30% drop on 2019’s figure.

Yet these numbers are arguably skewed heavily by the early days of the pandemic, when manufacturers and retailers essentially shut up shop during the first lockdown. This time, they have continued trading, both face to face and, as of the start of 2021, digitally.

Different restrictions and valuable lessons learned mean companies are fighting back and business is building. “We have been operating throughout,” Eurig Druce, managing director of Citroën UK, told Autocar. “While showrooms have been closed, customers have been able to buy online if that suits their needs, so we don’t see the market having the huge bounce back seen last July. There are also many people that are uncertain about how the pandemic will affect their jobs in the long term. Therefore, we are anticipating a slight increase this year in new car sales of approximately 12% from 2020.”

The idea that there won’t be a flood of customers through the doors is backed by Robert Forrester, CEO of the Vertu Motors Group. “We’re already operating at between 70% and 90% of normal sales volume, even before the doors are reopened,” he told Autocar. “There is still some pent-up demand from buyers who will want to get into the showroom on 12 April, but nothing like the same uplift as we experienced after the first lockdown.”

The rapid adoption of online technologies has played its part in the industry being able to reclaim some of the ground lost during the first lockdown. Click and collect, home delivery and money-back guarantees are also used industry-wide, while video calling with personalised guided tours of cars are offered by almost every manufacturer and dealer.

Yet despite the constant background noise of digital revolution and disruption by innovative online retailers, the use of this tech looks to be enhancing the traditional sales model rather than replacing it.

Dealer covid secure

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“We’ll never go back to where we were,” said Forrester. “Technology has moved on and the customer has moved on, but that’s not to say everyone is now buying purely online. That’s still a very small market.”

As a stark example of this, of the 3000 vehicles Vertu has been selling a week, only around 70 are ‘pure’ online sales, where the customer researches the car, organises the part-exchange, completes the finance and has the car delivered without ever talking to a member of staff.

That said, when dealerships do open, some human contact will be reduced permanently. “Before the last lockdown, we had real success with unaccompanied test drives,” said Forrester. “Customers liked it and the sales staff preferred it, because it freed them up to be more productive as they weren’t sitting in the back of a car.”

Others confirm this blended approach. Vauxhall managing director Paul Willcox said: “It’s likely we’ll see a hybrid approach to retailing in the future, with far more done online, but we believe, on the whole, that people want to deal with people and they also want to see, touch and test drive the vehicles, so our retailer network will continue to have a very valuable role in the future.”

As for what consumers are buying, in terms of used vehicles Forrester agreed with a recent study by Cap HPI that picked up on strong demand for sports cars and convertibles, with values rising by 7% in the past year, compared with a 3% drop the 12 months before that. “Used car values are up across the board,” he said. “But there’s strong demand for these types of cars in particular because they [buyers] want a bit of fun. Land Rover is doing really well for the same reason, with customers keen on the lifestyle angle and ready to break the tedium of lockdown.”

In the new car sector, the pandemic has accelerated the move towards electrification, even without the added impetus of the 2030 deadline for the ban of combustion-engined vehicles. With fewer miles travelled, greater choice and an ever-improving charging infrastructure, buyers are increasingly likely to make the switch. According to the SMMT’s figures for February 2021, while overall new car sales were down by 35.3% year on year, registrations of EVs rose by 40.2% and PHEVs by 52.1% for a 13% market share.

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Of course, this expectation of gradually increasing sales across the board needs stock to be available. “Used stock is fine,” said Forrester. “New car sales won’t be the problem, either, but new car supply is potentially a bigger issue. You’ve got the potential for further lockdowns in Europe, plus potential Covid delays in the factories and supply chains. All this means new car supply could be tight.”

However, there’s greater optimism from car makers, who have been adapting quickly to the changes wrought by the pandemic. “Adjusting our manufacturing plants to be Covid secure in the early days of the pandemic was a major challenge,” said Willcox. “But it’s one we are now experienced with and that approach to safety extends all the way from manufacturing to our supply chain. We have enough stock in place for the initial demand we anticipate and the ability to source what we need from our production plants in line with customer expectations.”

For consumers and the wider public, the 12 April lifting of restrictions has taken on great significance. But for the car industry and its retailers, the months of planning and preparation mean that while things will be different, it should also be business as usual.

I bought a car in a 5 minute phone call

X3 2

Autocar spoke to a buyer who had taken the plunge and ordered a new car during the most recent lockdown. Much of the research was done online but the final deal was closed over the phone.

“The plan was to get a plug-in hybrid BMW X3, but there was no availability until September,” the buyer said. “The kids totally rejected a 530e. The idea of not having an SUV was horrifying to them! In the end, we settled on an X3 M Sport 20i, which was £170 a month cheaper than the hybrid, the salesperson explaining that the speed of electric developments is pushing the residual values down as everyone’s nervous about how dated the car will seem in three years.

“The difference in value between the two after three years was £1800, yet the hybrid’s list price was £7400 more. Once on the phone, the whole deal was concluded, including the finance deal, in just five minutes, the car undriven and unseen, based around what I’d read on What Car? and Autocar.”


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James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

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405line 6 April 2021

The kids rejected the idea of a 530e...I suspect it was actually the writer who rejected the 530e and wanted the SUV.

Citytiger 6 April 2021

Wow, "I wanted an X3 PHEV, but it wasnt available until September,  the kids rejected a 530e because it wasnt an SUV, so I got an X3 M Sport", or in other words you let the salesman sell you what they had in stock, because of projected residuals you read in a magazine anyway and scare mongering.  Perhaps you should have ignored the kids or tried a different seller

jagdavey 5 April 2021

Good job that most of the cars sold in the UK are imported. If we were like countries such as Germany, totally dependent on the car industry, we'd have millions of old men wearing cloth caps riding their pushbikes up and down the country looking for work!