Fleet News

EU retail shake-up and what it means to fleets

The new car distribution block exemption which comes into force in October will impact every area of fleet business, from the acquisition of cars to service and maintenance and residual values.

As the motor industry prepares for the implementation of new European car retailing laws in October, experts are predicting that the fleet and leasing industry will be far more directly affected than previously thought.

And, if the experts are correct, there is good and bad news for the fleet world.

The European Commission's new block exemption laws are designed to improve competition in the retail world, and reduce the amount of control car manufacturers exert over dealers. They will open up the market for spare parts, and encourage multi-franchised sales outlets.

This means new service outlets will be able to compete for business with franchised dealers, as long as they reach a required standard. Dealers will eventually be able to prospect outside their immediate sales territory for buyers.

An increasing number of key figures say the new rules will make a significant impact on the fleet industry.

John Wormald, director of leading consultancy Autopolis, says the 'deep reforms' of the EC will target 'car manufacturer imperialism', and there should be benefits for the leasing sector.

'A big shift in the balance of power will be set in motion. Leasing companies will be treated as end customers', he said.

'There will be a tremendous fight for leasing business between car manufacturers, independent long-term rental and leasing operators and other financial institutions. The depreciation component should become more controllable, because leasing companies should be free to remarket cars as they come off lease. This will be helped by the new multi-brand retailers.'

Fleets should also benefit from changes that will liberate the aftermarket, he says. The connection between sales and servicing will be split, allowing sales-only dealerships to sub-contract servicing to an open market of suppliers who meet manufacturer standards.

'Spare parts prices will align - and mainly downward. Car manufacturers will no longer be able to cross-subsidise new car sales out of the large margins they make on parts. Components suppliers will gain, as aftermarket distribution channels are opened up,' says Wormald.

The changes could therefore mean that fleets are no longer obliged to pay inflated prices for manufacturer-sourced replacement parts at franchised dealers. A whole series of powerful independent networks of service and repair garages could help reduce fleet costs.

But others see dangers in the aftermarket changes. They fear that hundreds of new service and repair outlets would not be policed by manufacturers. The danger, they say, is that service outlets often represent the public face of the leasing company to thousands of drivers - and it is vital such outlets are subject to regular quality control inspections.

Colin Thornton, director of customer service at British leasing and fleet management firm Lloyds TSB autolease, said: 'We rely on service outlets to be the face of our business, including the perceived quality of our business.'

Paul Everitt, head of policy and economics at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in London, agrees: 'There have already been concerns about the quality of servicing offered to customers and if you increase the number of outlets, it could be more difficult to ensure quality. Outlets that are not giving good service will have the manufacturers' names over their doors.'

Lyn Peperell, managing director of Acorn Fleet Services, in a letter to UK fleet publication Fleet News, said leasing companies would not allow shoddy service outlets to harm customer service.

'There are few leasing companies that do not have in place a preferred supplier network which is stringently monitored for quality.

'The proposed changes to block exemption will not change that. The leasing industry's 'preferred supplier networks' are so tightly monitored that any decision to add a new supplier will not be taken lightly.

'Only those professional companies that are either already working for a manufacturer or larger professional independents with the correct infrastructure, quality workmanship and willingness to invest and embrace new technology, will be able to conform to those standards.'

While there will be benefits to leasing companies trying to manage residual values, another leading industry commentator thinks the new block exemption laws could drive values down in countries with low car taxes - like Germany and the UK.

John Whiteman, project director of the International Car Distribution Programme - which has played a major role in helping to develop attitudes to car sales in Europe - says the EC wants to harmonise pre-tax prices for cars across Europe.

This would bring down car prices in countries like Germany and the UK, and increase prices in other countries like Denmark and Holland -where high car taxes mean pre-tax prices are low. The trouble is that when new car prices fall, so do residual values.

'The EC wants to create a genuine single market,' says Whiteman. 'There will not be an overnight free-for-all in new car sales, but if pre-tax prices do not converge, the situation could become chaotic - so prices will probably converge.'

Just as this may force residuals down in some markets, so it should push up residuals in countries like Denmark and Holland.

Theoretically, the new laws should allow private and fleet buyers to go to any dealer in any EU country to acquire their cars.

Any manufacturer caught trying to stop this from happening is likely to be fined heavily. Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz have already be fined millions of Euros for attempting to stop cross-border sales, and the EC is in no mood to see such practices continuing.

John Wormald, of Autopolis, thinks the EC has put considerable emphasis on achieving an open market for car buyers.

'There should be no unreasonable delays on sales to foreign customers,' he said. 'There is a battery of 'black clauses' banning manufacturer interference in transaction prices and dealer sales territories, and trading within the network. There will be no more country-by-country fixing of new vehicle prices.'

Overall, there seem to be as many opinions about the potential effects of block exemption changes on the fleet industry as there are people entering the debate.

What's certain is that October will see the European car retail scene entering a new era - an era where manufacturers will be forced to have less of a say in the way their products are sold and serviced.

There's sure to be a big fight for fleet business throughout the industry, leading to the survival of the best prepared.

'There's also every reason to expect an increase in competition for fleets' aftermarket business - from servicing and repairs through to tyres - and an increase in competition for fleet sales. It will be fascinating to see just who takes advantage of such fundamental changes to the structure of the European motor industry.

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