It is a fascinating business this. When times are really certain, good or bad, the market is always busy. When it is good, there are plenty of jobs around, though frustratingly not enough candidates to fill them. When it is bad, you don’t have to find candidates, they find you – it is just the jobs that disappear off the face of the planet.
And when we move from one phase to another, either on the way up or on the way down, that is when really good systems and processes count. Because during those very short periods demand nearly always matches supply and it makes a recruitment consultant very happy.
But we are not there at present. It takes me back to early 1991, another uncertain time. In such periods the market moves neither up nor down and so nobody does anything. And I can feel people hesitating now.
Of course, there has been uncertainty in the market for a very long time, but because lots of factors are combining this is heightened in late 2001. The industry issue of Block Exemption still dominates everything that we do, and there is no sign that until the European Union clear up this unholy mess that things will get any clearer.
And talking of unholy messes, the world situation is clearly not helping, especially, combined as it is with the US turn down, the world seems to be sliding towards recession.
But these will not be the only factors militating against the car business. There are number of new entrants waiting in the wings to see what will happen in car distribution. And the spectre, that of the larger retailing giants, is one that really does scare everybody within the business.
For a nearly every other sector into which they have moved, they have at best worried, at worst decimated, the existing players. And do not be consoled by the fact that they have failed before, it was a long time ago and there were good reasons in 1987 why a much smaller Asda did not pursue their foray into motor retailing.
Last week, I had a long discussion with a good friend of mine who is an expert in retailing, though outside our Industry. He really knows what drives retail in the wider market, and he had some very interesting things to say about the buying public.
His point was that retailing and all its aspects had changed significantly over the past 15 years. Few would disagree with him, but it is the reasons why it has changed that are interesting.
Until that time, he argued, retailers had provided an experience that customers wanted, but more by a process of natural selection than by judgment. In other words, everyone thought they knew what was required and those who were most correct got to the top. Since the late Eighties much of that has changed.
Now the science of retailing is now focused on delivery. No, not a substitute fotr the Postman, but in delivering a solution that answers what customers really want. The good ones like Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s have retail power beyond their own wildest dreams, the ones that still stick to their old traditional beliefs are slowly falling by the wayside.
The big brands are trusted by you and me. Rightly or wrongly, and despite press reports to the contrary, we innately feel that they give value for money. We trust them when they take on the petrol companies or big suppliers who will not play to their tune.
That trust is very hard to gain and easy to lose. Some feel that M&S’ problems started when a very damning documentary a few years back showed them in a less than flattering light. Mnay people were appalled by the programme – could it be that the delicate trust we felt for the brand was shattered in just 60 minutes. The company has certainly struggled ever since.
Nowadays, when major retailers extend their brands by moving into other areas, they can’t afford to fail. They cannot betray the brand by falling short and failing to deliver. (Perhaps that is why they don’t run the railways). So if they do move into our market, you can be sure that they will have had a lot of it worked out, and will have moved only when they are sure of their ground.
And for many of us the worrying thing is that they might just succeed. Because despite their size, they do not look to control the market today, they look to react to it. And our history is just the opposiate, wit manufacturers and large dealer groups trying to shape the market, rather than letting it shape them.
We only have to look at recent debates about price differentials between here and continental Europe. About the industry’s reluctance to allow multi-franchising, about our preoccupation with the colour of workshop tiles rather than customer delivery.
If Tesco can take on the jeans manufacturers in global lawsuits, when they can do the same with car manufacturers if they really want to. If the big boys decide to get into our market, decide to invest heavily and decide to protect their position against meddling from the suppliers and then big changes are underway. It may not be done this year or next, and the change may only be gradual, but when it does happen its effects will be seismic and we will once again see a clear direction for our industry, and much will depend on Block Exemption.
September 2002 is a time when the new Block Exemption rules have to be announced. As in the current war in Afghanistan, all parties will deal in misinformation until the final announcement is reached. Whichever way goes, the effects will be spectacular.
And we will finally have a direction to head in again, North, South, East and West.