Car sales time warp

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE you want to buy a new car. Naturally you need to know your options, so you visit a car hypermarket where all the main models are sold under one roof. If you're looking for a hatchback, say, you can inspect the Nissan Micra, Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Nova, Fiat Uno and Rover Metro side by side. There's no need to visit five different showrooms. You can test- drive all five within an hour or two.

Imagine, alas, is all you're going to do. In the UK such an outlet will remain fantasy for at least another 10 years. The European Commission has stymied any chance of reform, and published last week draft guidelines allowing car-makers to keep their exclusive car dealer networks and exempting them from normal competition rules.

While every other kind of retailing has gone through a revolution over the past half century, the selling of cars is stuck in a 1950s time warp. The locations are lousy, the range is small and the salesmen are all trying to do you a wonderful deal on the financing. It's like shopping in a supermarket where every product is Heinz, or an electronics store where the choice is between Sony and Sony. It's 70 years since Henry Ford told the world it could have any colour so long as it's black, and the attitude hasn't changed much.

The exclusivity arrangements enable car-makers to exert huge power over dealers. The plug can easily be pulled on the recalcitrant dealer who discounts too heavily, say, or uses too many parts from independent suppliers.

The Commission originally planned bolder reforms. But DG4, the competition directorate, was outmanoeuvred by DG3, the industry directorate. Car buyers deserve better.