First up, before getting into the issues raised by our dealer panel on our video call this week, it would be remiss not to tip our Service Dealer hat to two industry legends who have both coincidentally had their impending retirements announced this week.
Dealers across the country will no doubt join us in wishing STIHL GB md, Robin Lennie and Husqvarna Professional manager, Kevin Ashmore long, happy and very well-deserved retirements. I'd like to thank both men for all the help they've offered myself and the magazine over the years with their openness which has allowed our journal great access to their companies to keep our readers informed.
Similar to the dealers who they have tirelessly served over the years, I'm honoured to consider both Robin and Kevin friends. I've spent many memorable hours thoroughly enjoying their company. Thank you Robin and thank you Kevin. Myself and all your friends at Service Dealer, plus everyone across the industry, all look forward to raising a glass (or two) with you to toast your retirements just as soon as we can!
Return to lockdown
Because being apart from friends, peers and colleagues this year has been one of the most difficult consequences of what we've all been going through. With Lockdown 2.0 upon us in England and other restrictions elsewhere around the UK, it of course also effects how dealers are interacting with their customers.
We discussed this and other topical subjects with our panel on Tuesday this week. As ever, it is most valuable for Service Dealer to hear the thoughts from our readers on the front-line and we offer our gratitude to all participants.
Service Dealer owner, Duncan Murray-Clarke who chaired the call said afterwards, "Not only did we have a great turnout this week on our dealer call, but the calibre of dealer and the feedback was excellent. Many were award winning dealers and three of them were Service Dealer overall dealers of the year, which was great to see.”
The latest lockdown was high on the agenda and it was interesting to hear how it is differing for dealers compared to what they went through back in March and April. Firstly, the consensus appeared to be that at least this time dealerships were more prepared. Measures and procedures were in place to protect customers and staff, allowing work to continue. Everyone's business we spoke to was open, perhaps with the showroom or parts of the site closed off to the public. Vitally though, trade is ongoing.
Unlike last time of course, it's not spring now. Demand for new products is naturally lower at this time of the year. We heard from some commercial machinery dealers who also felt that demand amongst golf clubs for example, had also been hit again due to closures enforced on their facilities. With furlough extended until March, there might be a fear that clubs wouldn't be able to welcome back players for some time, therefore purchasing decisions had been put on hold.
Another significant difference mentioned was that this time there are increased issues regarding staff absentees. More people are either getting ill or are being asked to self-isolate due to family members or friends coming into contact with the virus. We were told that this has been noticeably different than before.
Dealers are having to find ways of coping though, because it appears that workshops are as busy as ever. The close contact that has been kept with customers this year via social media, revamped websites and more traditional methods seems to have paid off. Some even had to cease their messaging temporarily as demand has been exceeding capacity.
A comment from one dealer this week, really stood out as encapsulating what we've heard from many throughout 2020 - "online has saved us this year" they said. After what was described as a dramatic decrease in footfall to their showroom for domestic machinery, fortunes were turned around by offering local deliveries and collections via their website.
Another dealer echoed these sentiments, although their online presence wasn't so much geared towards e-commerce. They had found success by using their site and social media messaging to emphasize their local specialist credentials. We were told this had worked marvelously throughout each lockdown, generating valuable buzz and fantastic word of mouth amongst their local community.
Full line dealerships
The discussion then turned to a subject that has been in the industry news lately of dealers becoming solus representatives of a single manufacturer - and whether dealers had felt pressure from their suppliers to go down this route.
Some felt this had actually been a phenomenon that had been brewing in the industry for some time. The commitment that certain manufacturers expected from ordering dealers, we were told, had been creeping up and up - at the same time as margins are being squeezed.
A slightly more insidious tactic which was mentioned alongside this, and a potentially bigger cause for concern, was certain manufacturers looking to gain the contact details of dealers' professional customers, so they could access them directly. It was hoped that any adverse effects from practices such as these could be cancelled out by customers showing loyalty to the dealer rather than to a brand though.
The idea of stocking fewer brands in the showrooms did hold appeal amongst some dealers however. It was felt that too much choice can in fact be confusing for consumers who don't really know what they want. If franchises have been rationalised in store, it allows the dealer a sharper focus and the ability to sell what they choose to the customer to a greater degree.
We were told that not all manufactures are putting stocking pressures on their dealers though. Stiga and some of the smaller suppliers were singled out once again in our discussion for particular praise as companies whom it's easy to do business with. It was clear from the talk that the dealer / manufacturer relationship is incredibly important, but frankly so is the dealer / customer relationship - perhaps more so.
A key concern which emerged from this discussion regarding full-line or a greater commitment to a single brand, is something which seems to be a worry for many right now - stock availability.
We heard that so much product was missing from showrooms at the moment. Yes, dealers could upsell to a degree if a customer's first choice was missing, but there comes a point when even the more expensive option is unavailable.
It was suggested that where multiple brands were held, the impact of a supply issue from an individual manufacturer would be less significant for a dealership.
However, not only is the lack of stock from certain quarters a real issue today, there appeared to be genuine apprehension about what the situation could be like for the first quarter of 2021. Waiting 9-10 weeks for key products is far from ideal we heard. Dealers want to know if they will be able to fulfil orders come the new year.
It's issues like this that will have real influence over business confidence levels heading into 2021.
We are interested today to hear how all our readers are feeling about what the new year could hold. As such we're running our annual business confidence survey, which we'd really appreciate readers taking a few moments to complete.
We will publish the results of the survey and a selection of your comments in the next issue of Service Dealer magazine. Thank you for your input.
Take the survey.