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INSIDER: Disappearing dealers leave behind servicing headaches

Date: 09 December 2008

The Insider is a fleet manager with years of invaluable experience

As extended leases become increasingly common, the last thing this fleet manager needs is the death of the local dealer

Another week, another fleet ailment arising from the economic contagion we're all suffering.This time it's the loss of a local dealer to us, a Peugeot franchise, meaning a long schlep to the next nearest dealer for servicing. According to the dealer locator, that's about 35 miles away, so a 70-mile round trip for those driving 407s.

Judging by the rate of dealer closures across the country, there's bound to be more up here, especially as we're hit by local manufacturing closures. I've read that Pendragon, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, dealer group will have shut 75 dealerships by the end of the year.

I know most dealers are independent of the manufacturers and some will have fallen foul of their own short-term accounting, but I can't help feeling the manufacturers themselves are partly to blame.

On one car-centric forum I lurk in, a dealer manager described the £300k refit he was ordered to perform by his manufacturer. They specified everything, down to the brightness of the lights and the name of the equipment suppliers. There was no opportunity to shop around and save cash, none at all.

Meanwhile, the dealer is running to chase sales targets set in sunnier times and ends up with forecourts full of pre-registered cars just to keep up. But just as they get creative to find new outlets for these cars, their puppetmaster, the manufacturer, clamps down on sales via on-line brokers, as BMW did earlier this year.

Of course, the cynic in me says that manufacturers will be relishing this downturn to cut free anyone they don't feel is up to scratch. Now, I've no problem with manufacturers keeping dealers on a short leash to ensure servicing and customer relation standards are kept high. We all know which networks lean toward sloppiness on this front and cutting out the chaff is vital to ensure dealers don't get complacent.

But if dealers are going under from the pressure of keeping up with manufacturers' expensive tastes in showrooms and lighting - costs that will always get passed onto us, no matter whether we buy direct from dealers or not - then I can't help feeling the manufacturers should be dipping into their pockets in times of hardship to help them out.

What I don't want to see happening is a drastic cut in the number of dealers near to me, with manufacturers deciding (as Mercedes seem to be doing) to concentrate sales in vast city supercentres, thereby cutting off fleets like ours from quick and easy servicing. Ideally, I'd like the whole dealership to remain; it's good to have that human contact sometimes. But if the dealers do go the way of the petrol stations (at least we know it's not about real estate greed this time), then please leave a service centre. If we end up keeping cars for longer to save money, then servicing will become more important than ever.